MONTREAL (AP) — At her last Presidents Cup, she carried a 40-pound bag and had sand kicked in her face.
It wasn’t the finest moment in their marriage, but they can laugh about it now.
Steve Stricker was a rising American star, among the top 20 golfers in the world, playing in his first Presidents Cup with Arnold Palmer as the U.S. captain and wife Nicki as his caddie. He was partners with Corey Pavin in a fourball match when Stricker hit a terrible bunker shot and lost his temper.
“I turned around and took a big swipe at the sand,” Stricker said. “And you know who’s standing right there? Nicki. I blasted her with all the sand. Pavin to this day still asks me, ‘Has Nicki got the sand out of her hair yet?”‘
That was 11 years ago.
“We felt so young, but we were young back then,” Nicki said. “In hindsight, I didn’t think that would be the last team he was on. I didn’t think we’d never make it back.”
Nicki was on the practice range late Monday afternoon at Royal Montreal, standing behind her husband, as always. She is too busy as a mom to be a caddie, giving up the bag for good in 2001. She rarely has time to leave home for golf tournaments, but the Presidents Cup is a family affair and she wasn’t about to miss this one.
It was hard to believe so much time has passed since Stricker wore a team uniform. Bob Dole was the Republican nominee for president. The national media left the Presidents Cup on the eve of the final round that year because 20-year-old Tiger Woods, in only his third tournament as a professional, was leading the Quad City Classic.
It was equally difficult to fathom how the Strickers ever got back.
The stories have been told for the last few months now about Stricker’s resiliency in returning to where everyone figured he would be. How he failed to get through Q-school and had to beg for sponsor exemptions. How he spent the winter in Wisconsin in a modified mobile home hitting balls out to a snow-covered field with flags frozen into the cup.
Two weeks after making the Presidents Cup team, Stricker ended a 6 1/2-year drought by winning The Barclays, sobbing at the thought of his wife and two daughters and their parents and their endless support.
Reminders of his remarkable comeback keep piling up.
On Monday, Stricker officially became part of the “Big Four” when he moved percentage points ahead of Ernie Els at No. 4 in the world ranking. Tuesday morning, he assembled with captain Jack Nicklaus and 11 other Americans for the team photo.
“What a great, great story,” Nicklaus said. “I’m thrilled for him.”
The solution was hard work, typical of any comeback story in golf.
It required an amazing amount of support from his wife, who knew his potential because she had been there with him in good times and bad. A good golfer when they were dating, Nicki listened as her husband debated a career change and concluded that he was meant to play golf.
“He did this by himself, but not on his own, if that makes any sense,” she said, alluding to the quiet support of those around him. “He always had all the tools. He needed to dig it out of the dirt, or dig it out of the snow in his case.”
Nicki was the one who asked him out on their first date, although Stricker says there’s more to that story. He recalls going to see Wisconsin golf coach Dennis Tiziani for the first time for help on his game, and as they walked by the pool at the club, he noticed a beautiful lifeguard in the chair.
“I said, ‘Whoa, who’s that girl?’ And Tiz said, ‘That’s my daughter,”‘ Stricker said with a sheepish laugh. “I was going to call her up, but figured I ought to wait a couple of days.”
Stricker wound up going to Illinois, but he continued to work with Tiziani until he turned pro, toiled on the smaller golf circuits, became his son-in-law, and established himself on the PGA Tour with two victories in 1996 and a spot on the Presidents Cup team.
And the family bond grew stronger as his golf became weaker.
“He got himself into this problem, but here’s the strength of it,” Tiziani said. “He got himself out.”
It is not unusual for Stricker to figure things out on his own. Nicki says he can fix anything around the house, although he is not so stubborn that he won’t ask for instruction. And of all his fine qualities, this might be the most foreign for a male.
“When we’re driving somewhere, he’ll stop and ask for directions,” she said.
There was no road map for a golfer who went from failing Q-school to No. 4 in the world in just under two years. The question now is where this journey will lead.
He shot 67 in the final round of the Tour Championship, officially ending his 2007 season with $4.6 million in earnings and a $3 million retirement bonus for finishing second to Woods in the FedEx Cup.
The tears began to flow and the voice began to choke with emotion – no surprise there – but it was his caddie and longtime friend, Tom Mitchell, who broke down at East Lake as he reflected on how far they had come.
This time, it was Stricker who kept his cool.
“He wanted to hug me,” Stricker said. “He’s in my corner, he’s fired up and I am, too. I feel like I should be doing this, and I want to do it. But I didn’t want to get too fired up. I just told him, ‘We’ve got bigger things to do yet.”‘