Chaos is a good way to describe Sunday at the 2022 American Family Insurance Championship. Eight players entered the calm, overcast day within two strokes of Thongchai Jaidee and Miguel Angel Jimenez’s lead of -10, with two-time defending champion Jerry Kelly entering just three back.
The final round was crowded at the top throughout, with as many as nine players holding a share of the lead at a time. After a Jaidee bogey on the par 3 5th hole sent him back to -10 for the tournament, he along with Kelly, Kirk Triplett, Jimenez and Paul Broadhurst were all tied at the top. Several more joined that lead at -10 which stood for nearly an hour before Jimenez and Jaidee both birdied the par 5 9th hole to get to -11.
The back nine at University Ridge Golf Course presents golden scoring opportunities throughout, though the closing two-hole stretch has enough bite to ruin a player’s round.
The first part of that happened Sunday. Tournament host Steve Stricker birdied the par 4 14th to get to -5 on the day and -9 overall. He was one shot back at that point but did not pick up another birdie for the rest of his round and finished tied for 11th.
“I told (wide and caddy) Nicki I had to get to 13 yet and I was at 9 and we had four holes left,” Stricker said. “I was thinking an eagle in there at 16 and then trying to birdie some coming in. Yeah, a little late to join the party, but it was some better things today. I putted awful, though. I didn’t birdie any of the par 5s today. Could have been a real special round, but just didn’t get it in the hole very well.”
The next player through was Tom Pernice Jr., who began the day just three shots back at -7. After making the turn at -9 he picked up birdies at 11, 14, 15 and 16 to post 66 and enter the clubhouse with the lead at -13.
Then came Kelly. The Madison native made the turn at -10, picked up birdies at 13 and 15 to get to -12, but missed makeable looks at 16 and 18 to fall just short of matching Pernice in the clubhouse.
“That was a lot of good putts out there on the back side,” Kelly said. “I struck it well, I putted well, they just didn’t go in this time, but I gave myself some good looks. I mean, I was really happy with the way things were going and I was kind of expecting them to drop, ‘okay, anytime now.’ Then I just ran out of holes and didn’t make them.”
As this was taking place Jaidee was getting hot. The Thailand native birdied 9, 10, 11 and 15 to stretch his lead to -14 walking to the 16th tee. That’s when chaos mentioned earlier ensued. After finding the trees with his drive on 16, Jaidee was forced to drop and leave the scoreable par 5 hole with a bogey. His lead was back to -13, tied with Pernice.
His playing partner Jimenez showed a similar flash early on his back nine, birdieing 9, 10 and 11 to match Jaidee at -12 at the time. But then the wheels came off on the greens for the Spaniard. Jimenez three-putt bogeyed the 14th, three-putt parred the par 5 16th and posted 70, finishing the tournament at -12.
While this all was going on Kirk Triplett had a makeable putt on 18 to match the clubhouse lead. That roll slid by on the right side, leaving him at -12.
At this point a playoff seemed likely with Pernice in at -13, Jaidee sitting at -13 on the 17th tee and Jimenez and Broadhurst with a few chances to join the two at the top.
But all of the back-and-forth was finally put to rest on the 17th green. Jaidee stuck his approach from 180 yards out to 20 feet and left a downhill putt sweeping right to left. After Jimenez and Broadhurst both missed their bids to tie his lead, Jaidee calmly slid the putt in on the left edge. It was a birdie on the hole, -4 for the day and -14 overall for the tournament.
A difficult 18th hole can always sway a tournament’s result. Just look at the recent PGA Championship at Southern Hills, where leader Mito Pereira double-bogeyed the final hole to relinquish the lead and allow Justin Thomas to win the tournament in a playoff.
But Jaidee’s final hole was anything but nervy. He striped it into the fairway, narrowly missed the green with his approach and got up and down for a tournament-winning par.
“Excited,” Jaidee said when asked to describe his emotions. “I played a solid, solid week. I took one mistake on 16, hit the tree and lost the ball, we make a good bogey…holed a good putt on 17 and the game changed. I think my confidence in putting, that’s why helped me a lot for this week.”
With the win, Jaidee became the first player from Thailand to win on the Champions Tour and finally took the trophy from Kelly, who had held it since 2019. The win also moves Jaidee up to No. 12 on the Charles Schwab Cup Money List, still a ways behind leaders Steve Alker, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bernhard Langer.