Keep an eye on Stricker

Keep an eye on Stricker

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., May 9 — Steve Stricker had just knocked off his last interview Sunday night after finishing second in the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, and I was waiting for him with one more question. It was a stupid question — what else would you expect from me?

“So, what are you going to buy with the 2,700 FedEx Cup points you just won?” I asked.

He laughed and said, “Maybe a toaster oven.”

It was a pretty good line for a guy who was pleased with his play but still disappointed about coming in second to Tiger Woods. Stricker, a Wisconsin native who resides in the Madison area because he loves deer hunting and outdoors stuff, is one of the soft-spoken, nice guys on Tour who seems calm and serene at all times. But on the inside, he’s extremely competitive.

He is also a player to watch at this week’s Players Championship. Nobody’s listing him among the favorites, possibly because it’s been 11 years since his last stroke-play victory — the Kemper and Western Opens in 1996 — and six years since his unforgettable win over Pierre Fulke in the Accenture World Match Play final in Australia (what, you forgot?). But, maybe he should be getting more attention.

Stricker led the field in driving accuracy at last week’s Wachovia Championship and was second in putting statistics. That’s a potentially lethal combination, one that would play particularly well at TPC Sawgrass this week, a layout that favors straight hitters and control players, not power players.

Stricker, 40, has been playing well for a while. He was voted the Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year last year, and in ’07 he has picked up where he left off. In fact, he’s playing some of the best golf of his career. He’s already won more than $1.4 million and ranks 15th on the money list. He was fourth in Hawaii, fifth at the Honda Classic, ninth at the Shell Houston Open and 11th in New Orleans before last week. He’s already got his card locked up for ’08, which is not a small deal for a guy who came into 2006 with non-exempt status after a three-year spell of bad play.

He’s playing well and he’s hungrier to win than he’s been in a long time. He’s close and he knows it. That’s why his runner-up finish at Wachovia tasted bittersweet.

“Winning would mean a lot,” Stricker said. “I was thinking about that (winning) on the front nine Sunday. I couldn’t kid myself. I had to keep fighting off those thoughts and I did. It was a nerve-racking day. I thought I held up well. I hit a lot of greens and made a lot of birdies. It was good. I’d like to win. It’s still important. That’s why we’re all here. Wachovia would’ve been special. It’s like a mini-major. Before the year is out, I hope I’m in that position again.”

He would like to avoid repeating as a candidate for the Comeback Player award. That’s normally reserved for players who battled back from injuries or illness. Stricker earned it for bouncing back from a sustained stretch of poor play, going from a top-30 player to a man on the outside of the top 150.

“You don’t want to be up for that award too many times,” he said, chuckling. “I had opportunities three years in a row, and I didn’t do it until the third year. Every year, I told my wife, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were Comeback Player of the Year?’ And finally it came to life. Like I said, I don’t want to be in that position again, but it was a nice honor.”

The driver has always been the key club for Stricker. He has struggled with it at times. His great ’96 season, when he finished fourth on the money list, was sparked when he hooked up with a Callaway Warbird driver and began hitting fairways. He looked like a star of the future after that stretch and was offered a lucrative equipment deal with a rival company, the kind of money that would set up a modest-living Midwestern guy’s family for life, and he couldn’t say no. He began to struggle with the driver again, lost confidence and his game started to spiral downward.

Life was still good, though, because his wife, Nicki, gave birth to a daughter, Bobbi, in 1998, and like a lot of new fathers on Tour, golf was never going to seem as important again. The Strickers have another girl, Isabella, about to turn 2.

That big $1 million win in Australia in the Match Play in ’01 was a big lift, not to mention a big gift. Stricker wasn’t ranked among the top 64 players in the world at the time. He got into the field only because so many top Americans elected not to make the long trip to Australia, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

From ’02 through ’05, Stricker had just three top-10 finishes. Something changed in the winter before the start of ’05. Maybe it was the old guy he ran into while Christmas shopping at Home Depot. The man recognized him as a golfer but couldn’t place him at first. Finally, the man blurted out, “Hey, you’re that Stricker. You used to be really good.” Ouch.

Or maybe it was the extra motivation he got when his brother in law, Mario Tiziani, made it onto the big tour for a year and gave him somebody to practice with and go to dinner with and mentor. That helped make golf and life on Tour a lot more fun again. Or maybe it was just a general rededication and the realization that as he neared 40, the clock was ticking.

The next season, he played his way back from the no-man’s land of non-exempt status even though he played sparingly — 17 tournaments, Tiger numbers. He made 15 cuts and had seven top-10 finishes and won $1.8 million, the most lucrative year of his career.

“There are no secrets, I’m just enjoying myself a lot more and I’m a lot easier on myself,” said Stricker, the favorite son of Edgerton, Wisc., a small town just outside Madison. “If I hit a bad one, I just try to shrug it off. I do get upset but not to the point where I was a few years ago. I realized, going through that downtime of three years, that this is what I’m supposed to do. I’m a golfer, so I just decided to practice harder and play harder.”

He’s still devoted family man. I bumped into the whole Stricker clan in March in the Bay Hill parking lot, right as the leaders were about to finish the Arnold Palmer Invitational. I thought it was odd to see him since he hadn’t played in the tournament. Even though he was on the bubble to stay in the top 50 in the world rankings and qualify for the World Golf Championship event the following week, he spent a week with the kids in Orlando at Disney and the rest of the parks. And, he still got in the field at Doral, where he finished 35th.

In the parking lot, I asked how the vacation went. He flashed a relaxed smile and said, “Great.”

There’s a good chance he’ll feel the same way about 2007.

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