Steve Stricker knew something was up on Wednesday night when someone asked him on Twitter if he was doing OK, and when his parents called him wondering what was happening.
By the following morning, a bizarre story out of North Carolina had emerged in which the U.S. Ryder Cup captain had been promised as the host of a charity golf outing taking place on Thursday in Winston-Salem. Except there was one very big problem: Stricker was back home in Wisconsin, and neither he nor his agent knew anything about it.
According to a flyer (an image of which was posted on Twitter by Maple Chase Golf and Country Club head pro Sean Branagan), $7,500 would get participants breakfast with Stricker, 18 holes at a private course with him, autographed Ryder Cup merchandise, and a photo. The donation was “for a great cause and a once in a lifetime experience!” and would benefit the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission, a non-denominational ministry that provides services for those in need.
More like a once-in-a-lifetime scam, apparently.
“Some guy was saying he was my cousin,” a perplexed and frustrated Stricker told GolfDigest.com. “There were a whole bunch of lies along the way.”
And they apparently started long before this week.
In February, a man by the name of Rob Hillmer, the same contact listed on the Winston-Salem flyer, reached out to Wyndham Championship tournament director Mark Brazil in Greensboro about using Sedgefield Country Club to host a dinner in which Stricker, whom Hillman had said was his cousin, would be the guest of honor.
It sounded fishy, so a staff member at Sedgefield contacted Stricker’s agent (and brother-in-law), Mario Tiziani. Needless to say, Tiziani was tipped off by the fact that Stricker didn't have any family in Winston-Salem.
“It was a scam,” Tiziani said. “At that point I thought it was dead. Then last night happened.”
The lies kept coming and they were deep, too.
Hillmer, who was actually employed by the Mission to pull the event together, told the organization earlier on Wednesday that he’d just picked up Stricker from the airport and that the Wisconsin native was resting comfortably at a hotel. He'd been in touch with Branagan repeatedly over the last month as well. According to the event schedule, Stricker was supposed to play golf with Branagan on Wednesday, then host a short-game clinic and meet-and-greet with all the donors.
There were other untruths peddled, too, including one that Stricker would donate $38,000 to the Mission, and that he had a full slate of golf activities scheduled with donors through Saturday, including a round with one group at nearby Trump National Golf Club in Charlotte.
Once the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission found out none of it was true, according to Tiziani, they tried contacting Hillmer. He was, naturally, nowhere to be found.
The outing at Maple Chase carried on anyway, with 200 players participating.
"It's the strangest thing I've ever encountered in my 21 years in golf," said Branagan, who was first approached by Hillmer last fall through the Mission, which had held previous outings at the club. "The biggest thing I feel bad about is the Mission and their sponsors and what happened. Having Steve [promoted] absolutely helped get the number of players we got.
"We still put on a good event and everyone had fun. But it was a shock."
As of late Thursday afternoon, the Mission had not returned calls seeking comment. A message left on Hillmer’s voicemail at the Mission also went unreturned.
“It’s a little unnerving,” Stricker said. “What’s sad is that it takes away from what the rescue mission is trying to do. It looks like a great organization and to have a tarnishing of their reputation like this is sad.”
UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, Stricker made a statement on his personal Twitter account: