The PGA Tour Champions returned to University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, Wisconsin this weekend for the first time since 2019.
Leading off the tournament was a well-known and well-accomplished trio of Steve Stricker, Fred Couples and Jim Furyk. And judging by the crowds on the first tee and following the group, they were the three to watch during Friday’s action.
Tournament host and fan-favorite Stricker was stuck in neutral for much of his first round. A birdie on 1 started him in the right direction but he went on to play the next 14 holes at +1 and enter the final stretch at even par.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a struggle at times. Just had a hard time getting going. Birdied the first hole right out of the chute, but then bad swing at No. 3, put it in the hazard over there and made a good bogey. Just had a couple opportunities here and there, didn’t make them,” Stricker said. “Then a couple of divots on the back side with sand wedges, lob wedges in my hand…The second one I got on No. 14 was awful; super wet, sitting in a divot, down in a little bit of a hole. I should have probably just chipped it out sideways and got it up on the green somehow for my third to make par and move on.”
There were some good signs to build on at the end for the U.S. Ryder Cup Captain, however, as he eagled 16 and birdied 18 for a first-round 2-under 70.
“I hit the ball actually okay today at times, it just got on the wrong side of a few things, but finished strong with some really nice shots…I just made a couple nice putts and I hit some nice shots, and I’ve been doing that,” Stricker said. “In practice rounds here I’ve done well, the pro-am I played really nicely, so it’s in there. First round here trying to play well, feel like there’s a little extra pressure. I want to play well, so got this day out of the way and hopefully get going tomorrow and get off to a good one and keep it rolling.”
The same story cannot be told about Furyk and Couples’ opening 18 holes.
Despite inconsistent play off the tee, Furyk hit all 18 greens in regulation and finished with a bogey-free 4-under 68.
“The golf course is in good shape,” Furyk said after his round. “A couple tough pin placements out there, a couple difficult ones…I’m really still in my first year on the Champions Tour and seeing a lot of these golf courses for the first time, so really trying to kind of figure out how to play them, where the pin placements are going to be, where you have to attack, where you have to be a little more patient. I’m still learning that, but enjoying that process”
Couples, a clear favorite of the fans in attendance, was a birdie machine all day with three in his first six holes, three straight on holes 9, 10 and 11 and one more on 16. The 2017 AmFam Champion battled through three preventable bogeys—one on the par-4 15th hole—to finish with a 4-under 68.
“I think I could go play where I was on 15 a thousand times and maybe bogey it once and I happened to bogey it today just because I was in a groove and I thought it was not a difficult shot,” Couples said. “Other than that, it was a good round. Bogeyed 17, mis-clubbed a shot, made a good bogey, two-putted from 100 feet. But I made my share of putts, I made a lot of putts.”
With Miguel Angel-Jimenez and Jerry Kelly out in front at seven-under-par and five-under-par respectively, Furyk and Couples will enter Saturday T-3 at -4 and Stricker at T-14 at -2.
Even despite the condition of the course and the golf itself, though, the story of the day for both the fans and the golfers was the weather.
“Well, you know, to be honest with you, if we did this for another month or so, it wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s like our first tournament with humid and hot heat. It will whip you,” Couples said. “No, I’m not going to die. I mean, I hope not. But again, it’s the first day. Last week I played in Des Moines, it was a little warm but nothing like this. You just get drenched on the range. There’s no wind, so it’s just hot. Hate to use the word, it’s a challenge, but it’s not an easy day to keep thinking and keep fresh.”
“Oh, is it hot. Yeah, this is August weather in Wisconsin. Like on 18 there with all the stands around there, there’s no breeze whatsoever, so it was very hot at times. Then the wind would kick up and you’d be like, wow, like the air conditioning unit turned on. It was extremely hot. I thought it was a great crowd considering the conditions.”
The three will tee it up again tomorrow, look to rise up the leaderboard and gain ground after tournament leader Angel-Jimenez’s opening round 7-under 65.