Stricker joins elite group with Deere trifecta and aims for his first major at Royal St. George’s

July 12, 2011

You couldn’t miss the billboards. They were scattered across the Quad Cities — Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side of the Mississippi, Moline and Rock Island on the Illinois side — where the John Deere Classic is the biggest tournament on the PGA Tour. “Steve Shoots For History” with a picture of Steve Stricker, the unassuming man from Wisconsin who, at 44, has quietly become the best golfer in the U.S.

Stricker came to the Deere with a chance to win the event for a third consecutive year. Twenty-one players had won a tournament three years in a row, but only eight had done it since 1940, and they’re all legends: Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, Billy Casper and, oh yeah, Tiger Woods.

A month earlier, Stricker had gotten up early so that he and his 12-year-old daughter, Bobbi, could make the three-hour drive from their house in Madison, Wis., to attend the tournament’s media day at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill. They spotted the billboard en route. “Who is that lovely man up there?” Bobbi asked. On Sunday evening, after her Dad’s amazing one-shot victory over Kyle Stanley, it was Bobbi, and not humble Steve, who retold the story.

Stricker rose to the occasion by making an assortment of pressure putts, just as he had done last month when he won Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament. At the Deere, Stricker did it the hard way. He took a five-shot lead to the back nine on Sunday, but that became a two-shot deficit through 16 when he made back-to-back bogeys while the 23-year-old Stanley, an all-everything at Clemson, piled up four straight birdies.

Stricker responded with a must-make eight-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole. Then, needing a par at 18 to force a playoff after Stanley’s par putt lipped out, Stricker faced an awkward lie in a fairway bunker, where the ball was well below his feet. He took a stance with one foot out of the bunker and played a sensational 184-yard six-iron shot that trickled just off the back of the green. Playoff? What playoff? Stricker poured in the 25-footer for an unlikely birdie, his 11th career victory and a spot in the same sentence with the aforementioned legends.

“Unbelievable week and an unbelievable finish,” said an emotional Stricker. “I can’t really believe it happened, to tell you the truth.”

After answering more questions, Stricker rushed off to catch the tournament’s biggest perk — a charter flight to England for this week’s British Open at Royal St. George’s.

Stricker is America’s best at the moment and maybe the best putter in the game, but he has never won a major. The last time the Open was at St. George’s in 2003, Stricker was mired in a slump so deep that he didn’t get in the field. This time, and for a second straight week, Steve shoots for history.