Steve Stricker’s misfortune is Ernie Els’ stunning gain at American Family Insurance Championship - PGA TOUR (2024)

    Written by Staff @PGATOUR

    In a word, the finish to the American Family Insurance Championship was, well, shocking. There stood Steve Stricker, one of the best putters in the game, the hometown hero, standing over a 3-footer on the first playoff hole against Ernie Els to extend their playoff to another hole.

    Steve Stricker, 3 feet? A mere formality, right? Around the green, fans were buzzing, expecting another bonus hole.

    But this is golf, and golf can be cruel just as often as it wants to follow the anticipated script. With Els already in for par, Stricker pulled the putter back to match him, kept the blade slightly open, and his par putt carrying too much pace spun off the right edge of the hole. There would not be another playoff hole. No more golf on this day.

    This was Stricker’s party, for sure, played in front of robust and cheerful Wisconsin galleries in Stricker’s adopted hometown of Madison. But it was Els, the big South African, a four-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer, who was making away with the title, his second in as many weeks.

    Els, 54, was delighted to win again, but his initial cold-bucket splash of emotions was no different than any other person who had witnessed the final scene.

    “What can I say?” Els told Golf Channel’s John Cook just off the edge of the 18th green, the title now his. “I’m just shocked right now. I really feel for Steve. What a great guy.”

    Ernie Els’ Round 3 winning highlights from American Family Insurance Championship

    Els won for the fifth time as a member of PGA TOUR Champions, adding to the championship he captured in Des Moines (Principal Charity Classic) one week earlier. Stricker, the host who won the American Family Insurance Championship in 2023 and was well down the road to defending, was playing the event for the eighth time; he never had finished worse than T11. He also lost in a playoff in 2019, when fellow Madison resident and longtime pal Jerry Kelly won.

    “He feels bad winning like that, and I feel bad giving it to him like that, but he played well,” said Stricker, who goes back 30 years with Els. “He strung together, I think, three birdies on that backside when he had to and he kind of answered the call when he had to, because I had a three- or four-shot lead and kind of just let it slip away.”

    Els and Stricker began the day tied for the lead, and each shot 3-under 69 on Sunday, getting to 12-under 276 for the tournament. Australia’s Cameron Percy closed with 67 to finish alone in third, three back, his best showing on PGA TOUR Champions. Stephen Ames (67), who overtook Steven Alker for the lead in the season-long Charles Schwab Cup standings, tied for fourth at 280 along with Doug Barron (66) and Thomas Bjørn (69).

    For a good spell early on the final nine on a wind-swept, difficult final day at University Ridge Golf Course – winds were challenging, gusting past 30 mph and adding speed to the already-slick greens – Els appeared to be playing for second place. He had nothing going with the putter on the first nine, shooting 1-over 37, and Stricker was doing Stricker things, pulling away. When Stricker made birdie at the 12th hole, he led by four shots with six to play. It was clear who this party would belong to ... right up until it wasn’t.

    Els did his part by hanging around. He gave himself a pep talk to stop putting so defensively, and soon the putts fell in bunches.

    “I didn’t make anything,” Els said. “I was so defensive. The wind was blowing me all over, and I’m 6-(foot)-4. I said to myself, start making solid contact ... stop trying to guide it in there.

    He birdied the par-3 12th and added another at the short par-4 13th, where he smoked a drive that finished only 40 yards short of the flag.

    Stricker, runaway 2023 Player of the Year on PGA TOUR Champions, had done plenty of good things this season – he had counted top-10 finishes in all but one of his 2024 starts – but something was missing from the body of work. A prolific winner since joining the over-50 circuit in 2017, Stricker had yet to win this season.

    A year ago, Stricker won the American Family Insurance Championship by five shots, coasting to the finish. It seemed a natural place for Stricker to end what has been his longest winless string since joining PGA TOUR Champions: eight starts without a trophy.

    Even after Els’ back-to-back birdies, Stricker still led by two with five holes left – but things turned quickly at the 398-yard 14th. Stricker short-sided himself in a front bunker off an approach from the middle of the fairway just 114 yards from the flag, leading to his first bogey of the day. Els poured in a 12-footer for his third consecutive birdie, and suddenly both players were 11 under. Els and Stricker traded pars at 15 and birdies at the par-5 16th, and they still were tied, three shots clear of the field, with two to play.

    There was little to separate the two. And then came one poor par putt from a guy who has an expansive history of making most everything he looks at on the greens. In a word, shocking.

    Even Els, now the victor, did not know quite how to react. Said Els, “I just gave him a hug really, and I just said, ‘I'm sorry.’”

    For Els, Sunday marked his fourth consecutive start where he entered the final round with a chance to win. At the Regions Tradition and KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, it didn’t happen for him. But the last two weeks in Iowa and Wisconsin, it did. He’s the first Champions Tour player to win back-to-back since, you guessed it, Stricker a year ago. Ah, golf. For Els, what has sparked the difference?

    “You've got to just play proper golf.” Els said, “and you've got to make some putts at the end of the day. I feel a lot better with my putting. Playing with Steve Stricker, you feel like you don't putt very well (he laughs). I know I'm putting well; I'm striking it good. I'm just hanging in there and trying to get my chances where they come.”

    After a successful eight-year run at University Ridge, the American Family Insurance Championship will move across town to TPC Wisconsin, where Stricker has helped with a course redesign.

    Els said he will be there for the tournament in 2025 – possibly under a new format – and he knows Stricker will be there, too, bouncing back as strong as ever, as he usually does, and always has. Right now, though, the six-time winner from a year ago is fighting to find that first victory of ’24.

    “He's the best putter we have probably in the world,” Els said of Stricker, “and as I said, conditions were tough. The short putts when that gust comes, it throws you off a little bit, so it can happen to the best of us.”

    Steve Stricker’s misfortune is Ernie Els’ stunning gain at American Family Insurance Championship - PGA TOUR (2024)
    Top Articles
    Latest Posts
    Article information

    Author: Otha Schamberger

    Last Updated:

    Views: 5295

    Rating: 4.4 / 5 (75 voted)

    Reviews: 82% of readers found this page helpful

    Author information

    Name: Otha Schamberger

    Birthday: 1999-08-15

    Address: Suite 490 606 Hammes Ferry, Carterhaven, IL 62290

    Phone: +8557035444877

    Job: Forward IT Agent

    Hobby: Fishing, Flying, Jewelry making, Digital arts, Sand art, Parkour, tabletop games

    Introduction: My name is Otha Schamberger, I am a vast, good, healthy, cheerful, energetic, gorgeous, magnificent person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.