Steve Stricker came up short in Quad Cities, but he's not complaining

Steve Stricker came up short in Quad Cities, but he’s not complaining

Stricker finished four shots off the lead on Sunday.
Carlos M. Saavedra

Two months ago Steve Stricker opened an e-mail and came face-to-face with the design for this year’s John Deere Classic billboard. He promptly responded to tournament chairman Clair Peterson with a text. “Who is that guy?” Stricker asked. “I never do that!”

The billboard shows the moment that electrified the Quad Cities last summer—Stricker shouting and giving an emotional fist pump. He had just holed a 25-foot putt on the final green for an amazing birdie after an even more amazing shot from a fairway bunker.

It was the shot that won Stricker a third straight John Deere Classic—or simply the Deere, as locals call it. And it was the shot that put the Deere on the golf map. The Deere has long been a beloved PGA Tour stop for players who enjoy the event’s small-town hospitality. It is the only connection to anything major league in the Quad Cities, where summers are almost quiet enough to hear the corn grow and folks are understandably proud of their slightly-off-the-beaten-path tournament. (You want to stump contestants on Jeopardy!? Ask them to name the Quad Cities. The question, Alex: What are Rock Island and Moline, Ill., and Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa?)

The Deere, thanks to Stricker’s historic run, gave the area an identity.

“All year long, a week didn’t go by that somebody didn’t stop me in the mall or the grocery store to talk about the finish,” Peter­son says. “It was Tiger-like. Remember that Canadian Open and Tiger’s six-iron from a bunker over a lake [in 2000]? It’s not unreasonable to describe Steve’s finish here that way. And Steve was the top-ranked American in the world when he did it.

“There’s a pride in having a guy like that carry your banner. Steve has redefined our event the last four years.”

Stricker’s run at history came up short last week, but just barely, as Iowan Zach Johnson won the Deere in a wild playoff over Troy Matteson (page G4). Stricker made his points, however. One, the Deere is a big deal in a small market, and there’s nothing wrong with that. His giant head protruding above the billboard’s border, and its accompanying get pumped! and steve goes for the stricker slam messages weren’t simply advertising gimmicks, they were a monument. The billboard’s location­—along the busy four-lane road that passes John Deere Co. headquarters and leads to TPC Deere Run—was perfect. Stricker’s visage stands between two Midwestern icons­—a towering marker for Blain’s Farm & Fleet store and a sprawling new Menards home center. “Yeah,” Peterson says, “you can see Steve while you go in and buy work gloves.”

Two, Tiger Woods doesn’t have to be in the field for an event to be a success. For one week in July over the past four years, Stricker was better than a reasonable facsimile. “Here,” Peterson says, “he is Tiger Woods.”

Stricker’s effect on the Deere was absolutely Tiger-like. He drew motivation from Tiger himself, after Tiger needled him the previous week at the Greenbrier. “Only one guy here has won four in a row,” he told Stricker. Woods meant himself—he’s in company with Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Young Tom Morris. Tiger added, “Get it done.”

Stricker, three shots back of Matteson after three rounds, wasn’t able to pull it off on the closing nine in Sunday’s humidity. He had three curiously pulled drives, a couple of missed putts—his fearsome putting stroke is currently on the fritz—and maybe, just maybe that extra four-peat mental baggage weighed him down. “I wasn’t worried about four in a row,” Stricker said afterward. “I was trying to win the tournament.” Still, the man who had been unbeatable at Deere Run beat himself this time. “It was weird,” he admitted. “I didn’t feel as if something good was going to happen, you know?”

Nevertheless, it was a good four-year run, and Deere fans have adopted Stricker—who lives three hours away in Madison, Wis., and played collegiately at Illinois—as a favorite son. He got the Tiger treatment on a smaller scale. In addition to the billboard, the Quad Cities River Bandits, a Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, gave out 2,000 Steve Stricker bobblehead dolls at a Saturday-night game before the tournament. The makers got the logos right—Titleist on the hat, and NYSE and Allianz on the shirt—but the face was generic and the doll had dark hair, not Stricker’s blond.

“I was having dinner with Jhonny Vegas and asked him when he got a bobblehead, because mine looked more like him than me,” Stricker said with a laugh.

The tournament’s focus was on Stricker from start to finish. Johnson called the event “the Steve Stricker Invitational,” and good pal and fellow Madison resident Jerry Kelly, an obvious interview candidate, barked at an earnest reporter from The Dispatch in Moline, “I’m not answering any more Steve Stricker questions!”

Before he warmed up on Saturday, Stricker banged out on-camera spots for CBS, Golf Channel and The fans treated him as if he was a superstar too. A crowd of 20 or 30 gathered at the putting green to watch caddie Jimmy Johnson meticulously scrub Stricker’s grips for 20 minutes before the Great Man arrived. Once he appeared—like Tiger, out of nowhere—the gallery doubled in number to watch him putt. They spoke in hushed tones. “Ryan and Jimmy, over here,” a man commanded two youngsters to his side, then pointed at Stricker. “That’s him,” he told the boys. “That’s Stricker.”

Everybody loves Steve, and why not? He’s nice and polite and very Midwestern in his lack of ego. Asked if he thought other players would be intimidated by his Deere record, he shrugged and said, “I wouldn’t be intimidated by me.” When he arrived at the 1st tee last Saturday, the first thing he did was introduce himself to the walking scorer, the sign bearer and two honorary observers, and then he enthusiastically shook hands with nearly everyone else inside the ropes.

It’s a two-way love-in. Stricker, an avid bow hunter, loves the tournament’s trophy—a buck leaping over a rock outcropping, symbolic of the John Deere logo. “To get a trophy with a deer on there,” Stricker says, “that’s pretty cool.”

So too were his heroic, Tiger-like shots. In the first round Stricker holed an 80-yard wedge shot at the short 14th for an eagle that sparked him to a 65. A solid 67 on Friday morning left him three shots off the lead and at the 1st hole of the third round, he stiffed another wedge shot to within inches. A fan loudly suggested it was a gimme, but Robert Garrigus, paired with Stricker, said, “I don’t know if I can give it to him. He’s kind of shaky on this course.” The gallery laughed. Stricker too, of course.

On Sunday, Stricker ran out of miracles. “I’m a little disappointed,” he said, “but I had a great run. It was a good week.”

He signed autographs on his way to the media center, smiling and thanking one starstruck youngster who told him, “You played awesome today!” After another interview session, he headed to the locker room for a shower. He had a flight to catch—the Deere-funded overnight charter to England. This is British Open week. Stricker will play for history . . . again. The ghost of Young Tom Morris might want to take notice.