Hard work and introspection helped Steve Stricker resuscitate his game -- one of the keys to U.S. hopes in Canada
It's not like he woke up one morning and found a cure for his ailing golf swing. There was no brimstone-studded speech from a mentor, no career U-turn after he had checked into the Hotel Rock Bottom. When a man goes from good to bad, then gets good again, the tendency among others is to search for a magic moment. Those 180-degree turnarounds are a storyline's best friend, but some searches are less futile than others.
If Ben Hogan dug it out of the dirt, Steve Stricker shoveled it out of the snow, finding his answers in an open-ended trailer on the far end of the practice range at Cherokee CC in Madison, Wis. In December 2005, three years removed from the top 150 on the PGA Tour money list, his 39th birthday looming in the on-deck circle, Stricker was trapped in the tour-pro's version of a midlife crisis: Shortly after finding out his wife was pregnant with their second child, he missed regaining his card by two strokes at qualifying school.
The weather outside was frightening, his future in need of brightening. "Kind of an eye-opener for me," is how Stricker defines the Q-school failure. "I came to the realization that I had to work a little harder. It was a case of finding it inside me and deciding this is what I need to do."
And so a guy whose quest for birdies during the off-season rarely ventured beyond hunting for pheasant began the process that made him the tour's 2006 Comeback Player of the Year -- and one of its best stories in any genre in 2007. Before he won last month's first FedEx Cup playoff event, Stricker finished eighth in the U.S. Presidents Cup standings. His presence next week at Royal Montreal GC could prove a huge asset on a team that has struggled on the greens in recent competitions, as Stricker, even during his lowest points, has always been one of the game's best putters, especially from long distrance.
He already had climbed from 337th to 14th in the World Ranking in 36 starts, which is a little like driving from Miami to New York in four hours. Thirteen of those 36 tournaments ended with a top-10 finish. Four of the 13 were top threes -- a pile that doesn't include Stricker's contending in the final round at the last two U.S. Opens, then teeing off in Sunday's final pairing at this year's British Open.
Westchester, however, changed everything. "It's so hard to win out there," says Nicki Stricker, who caddied for her husband from his rookie season in the big leagues (1994) through 1997. "You can feel like you've played your best golf and still finish second or third." The victory vaulted Stricker to fifth in the world; a T-9 in Boston and solo third in Chicago carried him to a second-place finish in the inaugural FedEx Cup standings.
The puddle of tears Stricker shed after edging K.J. Choi by two strokes was nothing compared to the flood back at his home in Madison. Dennis Tiziani, Nicki's father and Steve's longtime swing coach, had come over to watch the telecast with Lori Mitchell, the wife of Stricker's caddie, Tom. All had been through the ringer with a guy who had struggled for years with an amalgam of inner conflict, whose selfless, warm-blooded nature haggled frequently with a shifty dark side.
"He was operating on about four cylinders there for a while," says Tiziani. "You have to look at why he was frustrated -- frustration is 100 percent lack of knowledge, and he's a bit of a stonehead. The most important thing is, he just grew up."
You won't find a gentler, more likable soul on tour, which only seemed to exacerbate Stricker's internal turmoil. On the road he felt lonely and guilty. "We talked about it many times," says Jerry Kelly, a longtime friend and fellow Wisconsinite. "A lot of guys get better because the family's out of the way. He wanted them in the way. You think you've got more time to practice and that will make you better, but that's not always the case."