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Madison Golf Tournament Plans To Host Thousands Of Fans As Area Prepares For Return Of Big Events

Health Officials Are Working With Other Event Organizers On Plans For This Summer

Wisconsin native Steve Stricker follows his ball after a shot from the ninth fairway
In this July 15, 2018, file photo, Steve Stricker hits on the ninth fairway during the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, in Silvis, Ill. Stricker, who is about to turn 52, is not ready for a fulltime schedule on the PGA Tour Champions. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Madison is preparing to host one of its biggest events since the coronavirus pandemic began early last year.

The American Family Insurance Championship will welcome up to 5,000 people per day — including fans, players and tournament staff — when it returns to the University Ridge Golf Course in June.

According to a news release from American Family Insurance, the company worked with the PGA Tour to develop a safety plan that was approved by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The school oversees the course.

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Fans will have to wear masks unless they’re eating or drinking, which won’t be permitted within 10 feet of the spectator ropes. There won’t be bleacher seating. Instead, fans are encouraged to bring their own chairs for social distancing.

“The American Family Insurance Championship is committed to a 2021 event that is above all safe, and also allows us to achieve our ultimate purpose — which is to raise funds to help meet essential needs in our communities,” American Family CEO Jack Salzwedel said in a statement.

The tournament has raised more than $10 million for charity since its inception in 2016. It was canceled last year because of the pandemic.

According to American Family Insurance, University Ridge could accommodate up to 50,000 socially distanced spectators across its 430 acres. The daily limit of 5,000 people was decided out of an abundance of caution, said tournament director Nate Pokrass.

The safety precautions were based on other PGA Tour events. Top tournaments, like the Masters and the Players, have welcomed fans this year. Tournament officials also consulted with Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC).

“We always work with event coordinators to make sure they understand the current order requirements and have a plan so that they will be in compliance,” said Bonnie Koenig, business liaison for PHMDC’s emergency response.

The American Family Insurance Championship is likely to be one of the first large-scale events to return to Dane County — but it won’t be the only one this summer, Koenig said. She’s working with other organizers to ensure their events meet public health requirements. Popular festivals like Art Fair on the Square and Taste of Madison are planning their returns.

Currently, there’s no limit on outdoor gathering size in Dane County if participants can socially distance.

“We say we’re cautiously optimistic because things could change such that we have to modify our orders and the conversations we have with these event organizers,” Koenig said. “So we always tell the event coordinators that they need to have a plan for modifying or canceling their event in the case of our orders being very different at the time the event takes place.”

Her agency has resources online for local event planners, and it also offers one-on-one guidance. It doesn’t approve plans. Organizers are responsible for ensuring they’re compliant, Koenig said.

She’s confident the best practices we’ve learned over the last year — and the resulting public health policies — will help Dane County stay safe, despite a busier summer, she said.

Wisconsin is set to host the Ryder Cup, one of golf’s biggest events, later this year at Whistling Straits. Meanwhile, UW Athletics has said it’s hoping for full stadiums this fall.