ERIN, Wis. — When Steve Stricker walked off the practice green for his tee time at the U.S. Open, he might as well have been the Pope.
Crowds four- and five-deep lined the 1st tee to welcome their hometown hero. His wife, Nicki, hauled his bag and stood beside him as he waved and the crowd shouted.
It was like a family reunion, and Stricker was the host.
There was polite applause for Stricker’s playing partners, Stewart Cink and Roberto Diaz — the latter having replaced Phil Mickelson after his withdrawal — but nothing quite like the roar when the announcer said, “From Madison, Wisconsin…”
Stricker has never won a major. He almost didn’t get to play in this one, either. He was denied a special exemption and had to play his way into the national championship. The 50-year-old did it in style, winning the Germantown Country Club sectional.
It’s a homecoming and the fans are thrilled, perhaps even more so than Stricker. They lined the fairways, whooping as he passed and following along like a nomadic tribe as they left tamped down fescue in their wake. Shouts rippled down the ropes. Every 10 yards or so, Stricker acknowledged the crowd; humbled, but focused on the task at hand.
“I think it’s a bigger deal that [the U.S. Open] is in Wisconsin,” said one spectator, named Jamie. “But we’re rooting for him wherever he plays.”
Jamie and his buddies Nick, Ethan and Josh were just a few locals to join the herd following Stricker on Thursday. If coming to their state’s first U.S. Open was a chance of a lifetime, watching their favorite play in it was “a dream come true.”
“You just watch the galleries clear out as soon as he walks off,” said Nick. “A lot of people are watching him, and it’s an honor to watch him.”
Thirteen years after going through a slump that saw him lose his Tour card, Stricker is having a bit of a renaissance moment: a fourth place finish at the 2016 Open Championship, a tie for 16th at this year’s Masters, just one missed cut and two other top 10s this season. At Erin Hills on Thursday, he birdied the 1st. Then the 2nd. The giant crowd on a knoll to the right of the 2nd green thundered with applause. Stricker and Nicki shared a fist bump.
“Great receptions almost every green I walked up on,” said Stricker, who shot a first-round 73. “Every tee, in between the greens and the tees, I got a lot of support out there today. And it was a lot of fun. Definitely keeps you motivated to play well, you know, with a lot of people cheering you on. I saw a lot of familiar faces and friends.”
Stricker erased his two early birdies with bogeys on the 3rd and 4th holes. He also bogeyed the 8th before parring the final 10 holes. He’s eight shots behind first-round leader Rickie Fowler.
“I think people are really excited of the idea that he could get his first major at a home course like this; it would just be really icing on the cake for someone with a really successful career without that major on it,” said Ethan. “That would be really fantastic if that could happen.”
If it does happen, Wisconsin can’t wait to continue this party.