Steve Stricker, now 50, on competing against the young guns and captaining the Presidents Cup
[This story originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of GOLF Magazine.]
On a misty weekday morning at Madison, Wisconsin’s Cherokee Country Club, Steve Stricker arrives in an appropriately smart-casual ensemble: starched blue button-up, dark jeans, no hat. (It’s always a bit startling to see Tour players without their sponsor-logoed duds.) Stricker is, as always, amiable and attentive. He’s known as one of golf’s nicest guys for a reason—but underestimate him at your peril. The warm demeanor masks a gritty competitiveness that not only allowed him to battle back from the depths of swing despair to amass 12 career Tour wins (nine of which came in his 40s), but that could propel him to even greater heights as the Champions Tour’s newest star. That is, if he can get himself to actually play the events.
You turned 50 in February. Do you feel old?
I don’t feel any different, personally, but when I went to play on the Champions Tour, although I’ve enjoyed the weeks I’ve played…let me just put it this way—it was a weird feeling. I don’t feel like I’m “there” yet. I still feel like I belong out on the big tour.
With your performance this year— a T16 in the Masters, a T14 at the Zurich Classic—you’ve proven you’re more than capable of competing on any stage. At this point, is your plan to play both tours?
Yeah. I’ve talked to a few guys, peers of mine: Tom Lehman, Kenny Perry. And it’s a tough balancing act. When you have the opportunity to play on the big tour, you don’t really want to give that up. So that’s the constant struggle with scheduling: “Which place should I play?”
You almost won your Champions Tour debut, the Tucson Conquistadores Classic, but finished one shot behind Lehman. How did the feel of being in contention compare with the PGA Tour?
It’s exactly the same. I felt a lot of pressure that first week, trying to perform well. And it’s hard to win no matter what level you’re trying to play—those guys are out there for a reason. They play well. They’ve had great careers. It’s tough to win at any level, and it’s no different on the Champions Tour. The nerves were the same as I’ve experienced at any point during my career on the big tour.
You have a pivotal role in the Champions Tour’s American Family Insurance Championship, which is taking place June 23-25. How did that come about?
American Family is a sponsor of mine, and they’re a local company right here in Madison. We formed a foundation together to help raise money for charities in our community. Years ago, we were going through ideas to raise money, and one of them was a Champions Tour event. So it’s finally come to fruition.
Wisconsin is in the limelight this year, what with your event, the opening of Sand Valley, and Erin Hills hosting the U.S. Open. [Editor’s note: Stricker finished T16 and five under at the U.S. Open.]
Yeah, it’s very exciting. The U.S. Open has never taken place in Wisconsin. People are fired up. I think the course is going to come across great. It’s a big, challenging golf course.
Do you have insider knowledge of the course?
I wish I had Dustin Johnson’s length, because it is extremely long. They can play it up to 8,400 yards if they want. Years ago, I tried to play nine holes from the back tees, and I had to hit a wood or utility club into five out of the nine greens. So it’s a big, big golf course. And it’s a beautiful spot. It doesn’t have water, like Lake Michigan at Whistling Straits, but it’s got the natural beauty of Wisconsin and the woods.
You’re Team USA’s Presidents Cup captain this year, and you’ve picked Tiger Woods as one of your assistants. What does Tiger bring to the table?
He brings a lot to the table: his experience over the years on all these teams, his enthusiasm to help out. We saw that big-time last year at the Ryder Cup, how much he got involved, and how intense and thought-out his remarks and conversations were. He took it very, very seriously. So I look forward to having all that insight from him again in the fall. As I said, he brings a lot. The guys look up to him and respect him. He was very engaged with every player. I think that says a lot about him. And I think the players from last year’s Ryder Cup team really fed off that. I’m sure he’ll be the same way this fall.
Are there specific strategies you’re planning to employ as captain?
Being part of all these teams, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you listen. As a captain, you listen to your players and create an atmosphere that’s comfortable and that allows them to play their best. I think that was a big part of last year’s [Ryder Cup] team [captained by] Davis Love. When I was part of his team in 2012, we should have won and just didn’t finish it off. But I think if you create an atmosphere in which the players are good with one another, it’s light, they’re having fun, and you listen to some of their needs and wants, it brings out their best golf.
In 2013, you surprised a lot of people when, after seven consecutive highly successful years on Tour, you pared down your schedule by about half. Why did you make that decision?
For a lot of reasons. Back in 2005 and 2006, when I started playing well, I felt that if I could put in these next seven or eight years of good play, I could see myself stepping away from the game at 45 or 46, cutting back a little bit, spending more time at home. I knew what ages my girls were going to be. I wanted to spend more time with them and my wife, and just enjoy it a little more, instead of always thinking about golf, being on the road, being away from home.
Was there a specific moment when you felt the time was right?
I can tell you the day exactly. It was prior to playing Tiger’s event [the Hero World Challenge] at Sherwood, in California, and I said, “You know what? I’m not feeling it. I don’t feel like going to work. I don’t feel like practicing as much. I want to be home.” That was in December, a month in which I always used to ramp up for the next year. And I said, “I’m just not feeling like I want to do this full-time anymore.” I called all my sponsors myself. I said, “This is what I want to do. Are you with me or are you not? And it’s okay if you’re not.” My priorities at the time had changed, and that’s what I wanted to do, so they were all with me. I made the commitment that day and felt great about it. And I still feel great about it.
Has your quality of life improved?
Yeah, but I feel like I’m busier. I thought I’d have more time, but I think, because I’m home more, that I’ve gotten into other things. There’s family time, which is at the top of the list, and then there are the other things I like to do. I enjoy hunting, and although I still get fired up and excited and into playing tournament golf, it’s taken much more of a backseat than before.
After taking time off, were you concerned that your game might never be as good as it was?
All players, I think, feel that anxiety—of the game going away, or losing the ability to play. And that’s one thing you need to overcome and conquer, to have that trust and belief in yourself, that “Hey, I’ve been doing some great things. It just can’t disappear like that.”
From the outside looking in, the life of a Tour pro seems so glamorous. Is it more of a grind than meets the eye?
It is a grind. It’s an easier grind when you’re playing well. It becomes very difficult when you’re not playing well. It becomes painful. And every player I talk to goes through it.
You’ve experienced some of those lows firsthand. In the early 2000s, you endured a slump that led to the loss of your Tour card. How did you climb out from that hole and become the Tour’s back-to-back Comeback Player of the Year, in 2006 and 2007?
I wasn’t really paying attention. I didn’t put forth my best effort at times. I got lazy in some of my decisions, or my work ethic. And then it came to a tipping point. In 2005, I went to the Q-School and tried to get my card back. Missed by a couple of shots. I had limited status, being a past champion, but I said, “I don’t know what other kind of work I’m qualified to do, or what I’d want to do. I’m a golfer. That’s what I’ve been my whole life, so let’s get to work, let’s put in the time, let’s make the changes I need to make.” And I just put in the time. I made the changes.
When did you start to see progress? Is there anything specific, or technical, that made a difference for you?
Yeah. My coach is my father-in-law, and the major breakthrough was that I wanted to take ownership of my swing. I used to be long and across the line, and I decided to shorten up my swing and get it more on plane and under control. That’s what we went to work on.
Once you emerged from the slump, you shot up all the way to No. 2 in the world, in 2009. Were you surprised that you got that good, or did you think, “What do I have to do now to become No. 1?”
I was a little surprised. My goals were to win again and to make some of the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup teams. But I never thought I’d get to No. 2 in the world. Did I think about No. 1? I don’t even know if I wanted to be No. 1. I see the pressure that some of these guys go through, and with my personality, my demeanor, I don’t know if I would have handled it very well. I was perfectly fine where I was. We knew Tiger Woods was the guy. Did I think my game was stacking up to Tiger Woods’s? No, not at all. I was perfectly fine doing what I was doing: trying to win some golf tournaments, playing on these teams, and having a great time doing it.
You’re known as one of the best putters in the game, and you’ve been so generous, giving putting advice to other players, too. What’s the best putting tip you’ve received from someone else?
I’m pretty stone-headed and bullheaded when it comes to my putting. I believe what I do is good for me. I don’t listen to many people when it comes to my putting.
Famously, you gave Tiger a putting tip at Doral in 2013. Do other pros approach you for advice?
There are a few I continually help here and there, but it’s hard sometimes. Other times, I really enjoy it. I look forward to helping them, because I want to make them better players, and I can see how frustrated they are. So it makes me feel good that I can offer something back and help. But you have to be careful there, too, because it could get in the way of what you’re doing and your own goals, just for the week.
A Tour player once told me, “Everyone on Tour is super helpful, until you’re in the final group with them.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s about right.
He said that with a chuckle. But if you’re giving a 45-minute putting clinic to a guy on the practice green, it certainly does take away from what you’re working on.
And that’s what happened with Tiger. I finished second to him that week. Does he win the tournament if I don’t give him the putting lesson? Who knows? He still could have. He may not have. But that’s the nature of our game, and of our sport, I think—to help one another.
You and Tiger have been friends for years. That must be a blessing but also a curse, because you’re continually asked about the relationship, right?
Yeah. I don’t see him a lot outside of teams we’ve been on. There was a time I saw him quite a bit, when we were paired together in the playoffs, and then we were part of the Presidents Cup team and Ryder Cup teams. I got fairly close to him then. I miss him out there. The whole Tour misses him. It’s a better place when he’s playing, and playing well.
You’ve had great success as someone with moderate power. What’s the secret to going low on super-long Tour tracks when you’re hitting it “only” 280 off the tee?
I’m never going to get it to where these kids are hitting it nowadays, and that’s what makes it difficult as an older player. But there are enough courses that require different types of games, and you’ve got to pick and choose your spots. I still feel like I can compete on a long course, too. It’s much harder. You’ve got to drive it straight, and then you’ve got to putt well. I think if you can do those two things well, you can get away with being a moderate-to-short hitter.
You mentioned that your father-in-law is your coach. Your wife, Nicki, is often your caddie. That sounds dangerous. How do you two make it work?
Nicki understands me. She understands the game. Her brother played on the PGA Tour for a year, and her father is a golf pro here at Cherokee Country Club. My wife and I get along great. When she’s caddied for me, we’ve really never had too many differences or fights out there.
That must require a bit of emotional detachment on her part, right?
It does. Out there, she’s not my wife, and I’m not her husband. I think she treats it as a separate thing. And I’m sure she bites her tongue a lot when she wants to get into my kitchen and say, “What are you doing?” But she’s very good at it. She stays to herself. She does it well.
You’re known as one of the nicest guys out there on Tour.
Got them all fooled. [Laughs].
Nice guy or not, you’re human. What makes you really mad?
I really get mad when somebody doesn’t treat me well. It has to come from that person first, though, and that’s the only time I get on the defensive. I won’t go out looking for a confrontation. But if we’ve had an issue or whatever, I always seem to give people another chance. That’s the way I’ve always been.
You have this image as a straightlaced Midwestern guy, and in your recent commercials for Avis you’ve played on that stereotype, which is very funny. Is that a true portrayal?
I try to be as nice as I can to everybody and to treat people with respect, in a way that I would like to be treated. There are probably people I’ve crossed along the way. I was brought up correctly. I have great parents. I grew up in a small town where everybody’s friendly with one another. Everybody knew each other’s business, so you had to watch what you did and try not to get into too much trouble. And I try to teach my kids that same value system. So it is what it is, I guess. But I think I’ve got some people fooled. I don’t know if I’m as nice as what people say. But I sure do appreciate the compliments.