If you attended the second day of the Sanford International at Minnehaha Country Club (and the improved weather resulted in a far larger crowd Saturday than for Friday’s opener in Sioux Falls, South Dakota), you might have found yourself with a difficult decision by the end of the afternoon.
Who to follow around the course at the PGA Tour Champions event, the first golf event with fans since the pandemic began?
You had the threesome of Steve Stricker, John Daly and Robin Byrd, with Daly clearly asserting himself as the people’s choice after this week’s bladder cancer diagnosis, which he’s promptly responded to with a stellar first two days, checking in at 6-under, three strokes off the lead heading into Sunday.
Stricker, the 2018 champion, shot a 64 Saturday to vault himself into a tie for the lead at 9-under.
Or you could’ve followed the threesome of Miguel Angel Jimenez, David Toms and Dicky Pride, who are all playing spectacular golf this weekend. Pride shot a 5-under 65 on Friday to take the early lead, while Jimenez produced a second straight brilliant round that puts him atop the leaderboard with Stricker at 9-under. Toms is not far behind at 7-under.
Then there was Darren Clarke, who carded a tournament-record 62 on Saturday to pull within one stroke of Stricker, tied with Kevin Sutherland and Fred Couples, who shot a 64 on Saturday, including the shot of the day when he eagled No. 9 with a “slam dunk” chip directly into the hole.
And still, with all that going on, it was hard for the spectators not to turn their attention to the back nine at around 4 p.m., when the Legends Series teed off for their nine-hole charity exhibition.
Jack Nicklaus and Andy North took on Hale Irwin and Tony Jacklin. Nicklaus, considered by many to be the greatest golfer of all time, teaming with the two-time U.S. Open winner, and Irwin, the winningest player in PGA Tour Champions history teaming with Jacklin, a British legend and 1970 U.S. Open champion.
Nicklaus is 80, Jacklin 76 and Irwin 75, while North was the young pup of the group at 70, and the foursome put on a memorable show that left onlookers in awe throughout their 2½ hour round.
Jacklin and Irwin ended up winning the match play event, their prize being $20,000 to Sanford Children’s Hospital. It dropped North and Nicklaus to 0-3 in the event, a number they were having fun with in a group media session before the round and continued to joke about throughout their trip through Minnehaha’s back nine.
But while fun, camaraderie and charity were clearly the top priorities for the foursome, the exhibition of golf they put on, even in their 70s and beyond, was impressive in its own right.
Nicklaus, who won a battle with COVID-19 earlier this year, doesn’t move very quickly and his swing is an abbreviated version of itself, and that limited his distance off the tee. But the Golden Bear still put virtually every drive right down the middle, and saw a handful of difficult putts just miss giving the throng of fans that surrounded the greens the chance to erupt in celebration (as they so clearly wanted to).
Irwin, who was an all-Big 8 defensive back for the Colorado Buffaloes and later a three-time U.S. Open winner, looks about a dozen years younger than his 75 years and spent his round ribbing the other golfers, chatting with fans and media and making friends with Ben Wieman, the 10-year-old from Madison who was named the Sandford Children’s Hospital Ambassador.
Wieman had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2017 and rang the ball at the Children’s Hospital on April 10 to mark the end of his cancer treatment. North had Wieman take his final putt on No. 18, and the youngster’s presence was extra special when the Legends finished their round and the gift to the Children’s Hospital was made official.
“I think it’s one of the highlights of the week to get three of the greatest players to ever play this game to come in here and spend nine holes having some fun and some laughs and get a chance to compete at whatever level we can compete now,” said North, who nearly chipped one in from 20 yards outside the green on No. 12. “We really do appreciate it.”