The message was delivered in block type, splashed across the pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Shoulder to shoulder stood the pride of Wisconsin golf—J.P. Hayes, Jerry Kelly, Skip Kendall and Steve Stricker-framed by these words: HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE. Two years ago the Greater Milwaukee Open built its ad campaign around these homegrown heroes, a quartet of Badgers who have clawed their way from the frozen tundra to the greener pastures of the PGA Tour. It marked a milestone of sorts for golf in the state. In the popular imagination, hailing from Wisconsin has always been considered a detriment to a golfer's development, not something to brag about.
"I heard all that stuff coming up," says Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open champ who was the first Wisconsin golfer to break through on the national scene. "You know, 'How did you get so good with a two-month season? Do you play a balata or a snowball?' I found it's best to let your clubs do the talking. The success of these four guys has been an eloquent statement about the caliber of player coming out of Wisconsin."
Last week the Fab Four returned to the Greater Milwaukee Open, but it is no longer necessary to announce their presence in newspaper campaigns. They have become as much a part of the tournament as beer and brats. Hayes, Kelly and Kendall all gave up the chance to go through the concurrent British Open qualifying in favor of this little tournament, played on a muni course—Brown Deer Park—with one of the smallest purses on Tour. "It's an easy decision," says Kendall, a Milwaukee native who grew up a couple of miles from Brown Deer. "This is our British Open."
This fierce loyalty is in the DNA of all Cheeseheads. The Greater Milwaukee Open debuted in 1968. Since turning pro in '73, North, 50, had missed the tournament only twice until last week, when, keeping his commitment to his new tour, he teed it up at the Senior Players Championship. Still, he says, "My heart [was] in Milwaukee."
North's presence was nonetheless felt. He played a part in redesigning Brown Deer in the 1993, and that helped the course land the tournament in '94. As a longtime member of the event's board of directors—and as the unofficial head of publicity—North has helped keep the tournament afloat despite its lack of a tide sponsor. He has been especially helpful in persuading elite players to drop by every now and then, notably Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in the 1970s, and Greg Norman, who had a wire-to-wire victory in 1989.
Milwaukee hasn't made national headlines since Tiger Woods's pro debut there in 1996, but no matter. These days the tournament is less about the Tour's glamour boys than it is a celebration of Wisconsin golf. (Nine natives were in the field last week.) The flip side is that for Wisconsin golfers, the Greater Milwaukee Open is more than just a tournament—it is a rite of passage, best shared with family. This is where Stricker made some kind of history in 1995 by playing in the same threesome as his father-and brother-in-law, Dennis and Mario Tiziani, respectively, with his wife, Nicki, as his caddie. In '96 Kelly, a late-blooming 29-year-old rookie at the time, shot a then-record-tying 265, but he lost a playoff to Loren Roberts. The second-place check secured Kelly's card, and he has been on Tour ever since.
"There are no words to describe the excitement of playing at home," says Kelly, who handed out more than 40 passes last week to friends and family. "Guys like myself, Skip, J.P., we don't usually get crowds behind us like the so-called stars do. With that many people pulling for you, it's impossible not to be focused." The crowds, however, can be hostile. Says Hayes: "You walk around out there, and some people are yelling, 'Go Appleton!"—Hayes's hometown—"but others are screaming, 'Go Milwaukee!' or 'Go Madison!' Very partisan."
Amid the lovefest, the self-imposed pressure to perform can be daunting, which might explain why no frostback has won in Milwaukee. In 27 tournaments North never finished better than a tie for seventh. It was more of the same last week. Roberts broke the tournament record with a 24-under 260 and won by eight shots over Frank Lickliter. Hayes tied for third, nine back, while Kendall tied for ninth, Kelly finished 47th and Stricker 63rd.
At least the home folks are getting close. Stricker, now Wisconsin's leading man, has excited the state with a couple of near misses. In '96 he had a 35-foot eagle putt at the last hole to join the Roberts-Kelly playoff, but he burned the edge of the cup and had to settle for third. Two years later he battled Jeff Sluman, a Chicagoan who imported a sizable gallery up 1-94, but ran out of birdies down the stretch and finished a stroke back. "Sure, there's a little race to see who can win it first," says Kendall, who tied for sixth last year. "It would be the thrill of a lifetime."
"As long as one of us wins it someday, that's what matters," says Stricker. "The goal is to keep the trophy in the state."