This kind of team spirit has long defined the relationship among Hayes, Kelly, Kendall and Stricker. A little more than two years separates the youngest of the bunch, Stricker (33), from the oldest, Kendall (35). They came of age together, on and off the course, and have competed against one another since the earliest levels of junior golf. The legacy of this friendly but fierce competition is found in the small type of the state's record books. This quartet won four straight Wisconsin Amateur championships, from 1985 through '88, and accounted for six straight state opens, from 1987 through '92.
Stricker, who grew up in Edgerton, a town of 4,250 outside Madison, has long been the one to beat. "The golden boy," says Kelly. From the beginning Stricker had the build and the demeanor, and a remarkably mature game. Kelly, known as " Madison's other pro," was the wild card, a hard-nosed hockey player who too often brought a pugilistic attitude to the links. Kendall was the undersized grinder, overcoming an unorthodox swing—"The first time I saw Skip swing, it looked as if he were taking a jump shot," says Hayes—with an XL heart and textbook course management. Hayes grew up at the Buttes Des Mortes Country Club, and eschewed his family's lucrative paper business in favor of golf, his prospects helped considerably by a flawless putting stroke.
Though all four Badgers are married, and all but Hayes have children, they still have trouble letting go of the legendary skirmishes of their youth, like the '85 state amateur, in which... "I'm playing great," says Hayes. "After three rounds I've got a four-stroke lead, and in the final round I'm playing with Steve. Back then beating him was a big deal. Final round he plays pretty well, I make some mistakes, and he wins by two strokes. I still remember the score: 291-293. Losing that tournament was a big letdown. I was trying to be part of the first father-son duo to win the amateur. [John M. (Jumbo) Hayes had won it in '53.] Next year's amateur comes around, and this time Steve's got the four-stroke lead. Final round, I'm playing with him again, and I put together a little comeback and wind up winning by two strokes. The score: 291-293."
"I'll never forget the '90 state open," says Kendall, who that year was bidding to become the first to win three in a row. "I'm playing with Strick and Jerry, and the lead is going back and forth. With two holes to go I'm up one, then I finish bogey-bogey to lose to Steve by a shot. I remember every shot. You don't get over something like that."
It was more than these shoot-outs that sent Hayes, Kelly, Kendall and Stricker on their way to the Tour. "You get a lot of big tournaments around Chicago, and the golf up here is just as good," says Hayes. Wisconsin courses are defined by rolling terrain, towering trees and steeply pitched greens that are more conducive to draining snowmelt in the spring than putts in the summer. Then there was the Gene Haas Factor. A bluecoat at heart, Haas, who retired last fall after 24 years as executive director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, was notorious for the difficult setups he forced the young amateurs to endure. "To this day, when I see a crazy pin placement, I think of Gene," says Hayes.
From this training ground Stricker was the first to emerge on the pro scene. He won his first mini-tour event, in Canada. In '96, his third season on the PGA Tour, he won two tournaments and $1.4 million to place fourth on the money list, earning spots in the Presidents Cup and Dunhill Cup. (At the latter he led the U.S. to victory, going 5-0.) Tall, blond and easygoing, Stricker was a star in the making. Though he has never quite fulfilled his promise, Stricker had another big year in '98, finishing 13th on the money list and coming in second at the PGA Championship.
That August weekend two years ago was the most exciting thing to happen to Wisconsin golf since North's U.S. Open wins, in 1978 and '85. While Stricker was battling Vijay Singh down to the wire at Sahalee Country Club outside Seattle, the state's most successful player, LPGA standout Sherri Steinhauer, was sweeping to victory at the Women's British Open. ( Steinhauer, who learned at the knee of Manuel de la Torre, the iconic head pro at Milwaukee Country Club, would repeat in '99.) Though Stricker hasn't won on Tour since '96, he remains wildly popular at home, in part because he continues to lend support to more tournaments than just the Greater Milwaukee Open. (In 1998 he won his fourth state open—one shy of the career record shared by De la Torre and two others.) Last week at Brown Deer, Stricker drew by far the largest crowds of a starless field. " Steve Stricker in Wisconsin is like Tiger Woods anywhere else," says Dan Blackman, the tournament's media director.
None of the other Badgers begrudge Stricker his popularity or his success—"I'm used to the hoopla. I've been answering questions about him for 20 years," says Hayes—in part because each is doing fine on his own. In 1998 Hayes slew Jim Furyk in a playoff at Westchester for his first win, and with $721,314 this year Hayes and his magic wand have already set a career high in annual earnings. Kendall, the Steady Eddie who has finished second twice but has never won, is closing in on $3 million in career earnings, and with his $62,500 last week has the good news-bad news distinction of being the third-leading money winner among the Tour's winless. "I'll take it as a compliment," says Kendall. "I want to win as much as anybody, and plan to, but at least that means I've been consistent."
Kelly has traveled the longest road. He went to the University of Hartford on a hockey scholarship—he still has the scars from five broken bones as a souvenir of his days on skates—but upon his arrival on campus the program was dropped, which led him to commit to golf. Not until Kelly's five-stroke victory at the '92 Wisconsin State Open (over Stricker, natch) did he believe he could compete at the highest levels. In '95 he married Carol Schuman, sister of Jim Schuman, once the hottest prospect in Wisconsin. "I tried to get his swing by marrying into the family," says Kelly.
Shortly after the wedding Kelly began working with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, and with his mind at ease, the blissful newlywed played the best golf of his life, winning twice on the Nike tour and topping its money list. He's still trying to get back to that level. Since late '97 Kelly has been overhauling his swing, formerly a flat, slap-shot action that was so flawed he used the stiffest shafts on Tour. Like Kendall, he believes a victory is imminent. "If it's not the Masters or U.S. Open, I'd hope it is the Greater Milwaukee Open," says Kelly.