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Family comes first for Steve Stricker, who has saved his best golf for his 40s

Stricker was a shot off the lead heading into the final round at Merion last yea
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Stricker was a shot off the lead heading into the final round at Merion last year, but his bid was derailed by a triple-bogey 8 at the 2nd hole.

Less is more.

You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.

Those are lies, damned lies. You know it, I know it and deep down, Steve Stricker knows it. But in Steve’s world, those lies look playable.

The man is 47 but that is surely a damned lie, too. Put a ball cap over that receding blond hairline (as he usually does), take in those smart blue eyes, the easy grin and the angelic baby face (even with occasional chin stubble), then watch him walk. Steve has long-ish legs, takes big strides and has a rakish bounce in his step. The man doesn’t walk, he lopes. This is a great impersonation of a 27-year-old.

Inexplicably, Steve saved his best golf for his 40s. He reduced his schedule to semi-retirement size last year, just 13 tournaments, yet remained one of the PGA Tour’s best players. Which makes the Edgerton, Wis., native a legend in his spare time. Last year, he finished 13th or better ten times, was in position to win two majors on Sunday, earned $4.4 million and played his way onto his fifth Presidents Cup team. With eight wins in a four-year stretch through 2012, he was America’s best default golfer whenever Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were off their feeds.

Steve continues to slack off again this year, too. The United States Open at Pinehurst will be only his seventh tournament appearance. After he quietly sneaked onto The Players’ leaderboard during the last round and finished 13th, he appears to be a ready-for-prime-time player again.

Blame the slow start on a worse-than-usual Wisconsin winter (if that’s possible) and the captivating distraction of following his beloved University of Wisconsin basketball team, including trips with his wife (Nicki) and two daughters (Bobbi and Isabella) to Anaheim for the NCAA regional and a Saturday night dash to Dallas from Houston, where Steve played the Shell Houston Open’s third round, for Bucky Badger’s heartbreaking Final Four loss to Kentucky.

Oh, and Steve was also kinda busy saving his brother’s life (or in Steve’s view, simply making sure that some really good doctors did). Count that one as a win… knock on wood.

“I hope I get the chance to travel the world, but I don’t have any plans.”—Bobbi Stricker, 15, via Twitter, Oct. 8, 2013

Madison was cold and wet and annoyingly un-golfable in late April. So Steve and Dennis Tiziani, his father-in-law and the only coach he’s ever had, flew to Jacksonville for two days to sharpen Steve’s golf game. They had dinner at the Outback Steakhouse in Jacksonville Beach, a few miles north of TPC Sawgrass and a popular stop during tournament week, when Steve was recognized.

“Here come two kids, Can we get an autograph?” Tiziani said. “Okay, Steve says. What’s your name? What school do you go to? What about this, what about that? It wasn’t sign your name, here kid, now get outta here. Then an Outback employee comes up and says, ‘Hey, Steve, would you mind signing this?’ Steve looks up and says, ‘Hi, Mark, how are you doing?’ The guy says, ‘Oh, you remembered my name!’ Steve hadn’t been there for a year, this guy’s a waiter and Steve remembered him.”

That is the gift of Steve Stricker. He has what Tiziani calls The Service Gene. In other words, Stricker is an unselfish man living in a selfish era and playing golf, which ironically is the ultimate selfish sport.

“Steve has a great sense for other people’s feelings,” Tiziani said. “It’s giving the customer what they need before they know they need it. He’s got tremendous manners. I’ve known him since he was 16. He’s almost too perfect.”

When Steve won the Memorial Tournament three years ago, the final round finished late due to a storm delay. One nervous observer was Clair Peterson, the John Deere Classic tournament director. Media day was set for the next day and Stricker, who had won the last two Classics, was the star attraction.

At 6 o’clock Monday morning, Peterson still hadn’t heard from Steve. “I was dying,” Peterson recalled. Finally, he sent a congratulatory text and tentatively added, We’re all ready for you. Steve promptly texted back: “Already on my way.”

Stricker got home to Madison at 11 p.m. on Sunday, then got up early and drove with his daughter, Bobbi, to the Quad Cities, about a three-and-a-half-hour ride. Steve arrived in time to conduct a 10 o’clock First Tee putting clinic. A relieved Peterson asked Steve how close he’d come to bailing out.

“It never crossed my mind,” Steve answered.

When he reduced his schedule last year, Steve made plans to go elk hunting in September but he played so well that he qualified for the Tour Championship the same week and a shot at the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus. It wasn’t a dilemma for Steve once he considered the other players—there’s that service gene—and how a 30-man field plays in twosomes and if he dropped out, it would leave an odd number. “All I could think was that some guy would be cussing me under his breath because he’s got to go play as a one-some,” he said. Steve canceled his hunt and played.

At the start of last year, Stricker was newly signed as a brand ambassador for American Family Insurance, headquartered in Madison. Jack Salzwedel, the company chairman, took his daughter to the Hyundai Championship, a winners-only event in Hawaii that kicked off the PGA Tour season, to watch Steve, whom he hadn’t met. They tried to follow him in a practice round but by the second hole, it began pouring rain.

“We had no rain gear, no umbrellas, nothing,” Salzwedel said.

No one else was silly enough to be on the course so Steve came over and asked who they were. He recognized Jack’s name, gave them his umbrella, offered sandwiches from his bag and let Jack’s daughter ride in his cart. “When he finished, Steve took us into the locker room area to dry off and eat,” Salzwedel said. “It was my first exposure to Steve and I couldn’t believe it. He was totally gracious. I kept thinking, How many tour pros would do this?”

Salzwedel’s company helped Stricker create his own charitable foundation and last May, Steve and Nicki joined Salzwedel at the River Food Pantry, a Madison-area food bank, to present a $50,000 check. At the ceremony, Salzwedel introduced Steve to a crowd of about 100. The speech didn’t go smoothly as Steve got emotional—he’s known for getting tearful whenever he wins. This time, he got so choked up that he finally had to step down off the stage. The appreciative crowd promptly swarmed around him like he was a rock star. “He is so genuine,” Salzwedel said, “and they recognized that.”

What got to Steve was the fact that the pantry is only a few miles from his house and on the road he regularly takes to the Dane Country Airport . “I’ve passed it numerous times and never knew it was there,” he said. “It just looked like, ya know, some storage buildings. I never knew.”

“The ocean cures all problems.”—Bobbi Stricker via Twitter, May 7, 2014

Scott Stricker, Steve’s older brother, didn’t say anything at Thanksgiving dinner when he didn’t feel like stuffing himself with stuffing. For two decades he has battled Crohn’s Disease, a chronic intestinal inflammation, so not feeling hungry wasn’t new. He felt weak around Christmas, too, took a few falls at home, where he lives by himself, and finally checked himself into the University of Wisconsin Hospital on Jan. 6. It was a date the whole family remembers because diagnostic tests discovered sobering news. Scott’s intestine had a perforation and was leaking bile into his stomach, his liver was failing and his kidneys weren’t going to make anyone’s all-star team, either. He was lucky to make it in, doctors told Scott.

Steve took immediate charge. He researched what was needed and waded through piles of paperwork and red tape to get Scott, 50, placed on a list of liver transplant candidates. The situation grew more serious by February. Scott’s liver wasn’t removing enough toxins from his body and some were messing with his brain.

“It was touch and go for a while,” Steve said. “A lot of days, Scott didn’t know who I was or where he was. One time, he thought he was in an office building. That was weird and scary. He slept one whole week.”

Scott’s eyes were “as yellow as could be,” Steve remembered, and Scott’s body turned a sickly orange-yellow because of the toxins. “That was a period of time,” Steve said somberly, “where we didn’t feel very good about the outcome.”

Doctors hoped to perform the intestinal repairs and the liver transplant at the same time—they weren’t sure Scott could survive two surgeries--but when a liver didn’t become available, they could wait no longer. They operated to fix the perforation. Scott came through better than expected. A week later on Valentine’s Day, he got a liver and underwent transplant surgery, which was also successful.

“Steve got it done,” said Tiziani. “He stayed on top of it every step of the way. When he was home, Steve was in Scott’s room every day. Three or four hours, every day.”

Their parents, Bob and Carolyn, were also regular visitors. After four-plus bedridden months, Scott has lost a lot of muscle and is too weak to stand on his own but is able get vertical using parallel bars. He had improved enough to field a phone call from a writer, too, and sounded worn but fairly chipper considering his ordeal.

“I didn’t realize how sick I was,” Scott said. “If Steve wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now, progress-wise. Or even living at this point.”

There is no timetable for a release. The recovery is slow. Scott needs to regain a lot of strength before he can go home. He sees progress every day, he said, and he’s feeling well enough to make a few jokes. As for being in a hospital, Scott quipped, “Luckily, the weather hasn’t been that good that you think you’re missing something.”

Scott saw his brother on TV a few times during the Badgers’ NCAA run, although he missed it when announcer Marv Albert called him “professional golfer Steve Strickler” on national television.

“I told Steve that every time they showed him on TV, nobody was sitting near him,” Scott said. “Nicki wasn’t in the picture, the kids weren’t. It seemed like he had ten seats open around him. I asked him, Did you need a shower or something?”

The new liver is working well. Little brother is still closely monitoring big brother. “He’s not out of the woods yet,” Steve said. “He’s got a long, long battle ahead of him.”

There was a slight catch in Steve’s voice as he spoke that last sentence. Or maybe I just imagined it.

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