When inclement weather suspended play Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Memorial Tournament, Clair Peterson felt a dark cloud of resignation. The tournament director of the John Deere Classic, Peterson had scheduled an event the next morning at TPC Deere Run, but his guest of honor, Steve Stricker, was in the clubhouse at Muirfield Village, his eventual victory pushed to sunset.
Peterson knew Stricker would have trouble getting from Ohio to Illinois. "I'm just waiting for the phone to ring, only it never does," Peterson recalls. "Now it's 6 the next morning. We're supposed to start at 10. I need to start making new plans. So I text Steve and tell him, 'We're ready for you.' A few minutes later he texts back, 'On my way.' "
Stricker had gotten back to his home in Wisconsin after 11 that night. Early the next morning he had jumped in his car for the three-hour drive to TPC Deere Run. "It never crossed his mind that he wouldn't come," Peterson says. "He said, 'That's what I promised to do.' Best example of a guy who gets the big picture."
If the big picture includes behaving as the quintessential role model for golf, treating people respectfully, contributing to charitable causes, and, well, just being genuinely nice, then, yes, Steve Stricker gets it. His peers and various constituencies in professional golf agree, which is why Stricker, a soft-spoken, unassuming man was the runaway winner of Golf Digest's first Good Guys poll.
"A big part of our relationship is Steve engaging with our customers," says Jennifer Telek, vice president of global marketing and branding at NYSE Euronext, which signed Stricker as a spokesman in 2007. "He's very personable. He's happy to talk to anybody about anything."
Bo Van Pelt, No. 8 in our Good Guys poll, has watched Stricker battle through two slumps. "I've known him through all of it, and he has never changed. That tells you everything," Van Pelt says. "He respects the game and the guys he plays with, and he's a terrific role model because golf is what he does, not who he is."
"There's a ton of good guys out there, so it's nice to be thought of so highly," says Stricker, 46, who in 2012 became the 15th recipient of the PGA Tour's Payne Stewart Award for exemplary professionalism. "I just do things the way I'd want to be treated. To play golf for a living is a dream, so it's not hard to want to give back however I can."
Stricker insists that he hasn't always been reflexively nice, which is good to know. We aren't taking nominations for sainthood here. He credits his parents for instilling good, solid values, and those have served him well—particularly during those two well-chronicled slumps.
"I've learned a lot over the last six to seven years," he says. "The thing I learned the most was knowing how to act when I wasn't playing that well. That was hard. I wanted to let loose. But I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and say I wasn't going to let my golf affect how I treat others."
Stricker owns a farm in Blanchardville, Wis., about 45 miles southwest of Madison, and his friend Paul Overdahl helps work the farm and take care of the equipment. They are frequent hunting partners. Not long ago, they planned a fishing trip to Canada. They met in Madison. Steve started driving, but not very far. He took Overdahl to the airport, where Stricker had booked a private plane. Overdahl worried about his portion of the cost. Stricker just smiled.
"That was just something Steve wanted to do for a friend," says Dennis Tiziani, Stricker's father-in-law and his coach since high school. "I've seen him do a thousand kindnesses."
Underscoring Stricker's decency is his decision in January to trim his competitive schedule to spend more time with his wife and two daughters, explaining, "I didn't want it to be about me anymore." Each of his sponsors—American Family Insurance (partner in his charity foundation), Avis, NYSE and Titleist-FootJoy—stuck with him, a testimony to the goodwill he has engendered through the years.
Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet Co., parent of Titleist-FootJoy, tells the story of getting a letter from Sam Wells, a promising junior golfer who had been struck by lung cancer while still in high school. It began, "Steve Stricker is my hero." Wells went on to explain that he and his mother had met Stricker, and that Stricker had flown the two of them to The Barclays to watch the first FedExCup playoff event—which Stricker ended up winning. Sam further explained that it was this gesture that had given him the courage and motivation to undergo additional surgery and chemotherapy.
"That story," Uihlein says, "is all you need to know about Steve Stricker."