On the Friday before the start of Presidents Cup week, Steve Stricker was out doing what comes naturally to him in preparation for his maiden assignment as the U.S. team captain. He was out hunting on his satellite farmland in Wisconsin.
“Just unwinding. It’s been a busy year,” Stricker said when calling from his truck after he had driven far enough towards home to have decent mobile-phone service. Indeed, in addition to increasing his competitive schedule in 2017, including qualifying for and competing in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in his home state, Stricker was player/host of a Champions Tour event near his actual home in Madison, Wis. And, of course, has been showing up at a number of tournaments with his captain’s hat on, as he did two weeks ago at the BMW Championship near Chicago.
So, the guy deserves his down time. Especially as one of the most enervating weeks of his career approaches. “Yeah, I’m probably more nervous now than I was as player,” Stricker admits. “It’s the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and as well as you plan, you don’t have a lot of control once it all starts.”
The 12th Presidents Cup begins Thursday at Liberty National G.C. in Jersey City, N.J., and Stricker’s American team is heavily favored to win for a 10th time against an International Team led by Nick Price.
The Americans are led by the No. 1 player in the world, Dustin Johnson; No. 2 Jordan Spieth, who is the British Open champion; five-time winner and PGA champion Justin Thomas; and U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka. The International Team counters at the top with a slumping Hideki Matsuyama, who is now No. 3 in the world, and No. 6 Jason Day, who hasn’t won since the 2016 Players.
Slam dunk? Don’t bet on it. The U.S. team has a lot of new faces. And the International Team nearly won two years ago in South Korea, the decision coming down to the final singles match won by Bill Haas. Stricker takes nothing for granted. He knows better.
“Over 18 holes, yeah, there are no guarantees,” said the renowned nice guy, who proved adequately tenacious representing the U.S., with a 14-10 record highlighted by a 4-0 team record with Tiger Woods in the 2009 edition at Harding Park. “Anyone can say what they want, but we are expecting a tough four days.”
Stricker, 50, is a five-time Presidents Cup participant and served as one of the assistants to Jay Haas in 2015. He also played in three Ryder Cups and was a captain’s assistant to Davis Love III last year when the U.S. stopped a three-match slide to the Europeans at Hazeltine National.
The 13-time PGA Tour winner understands what it takes to win—or lose—in these biennial events, so he is trying to leave nothing to chance. He talks daily with his assistants: Love, Woods, three-time Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples and Jim Furyk, who is the 2018 Ryder Cup captain.
“We feel ready. We have a good idea of what we want to do, but, of course, that can change depending on what happens,” Stricker said. “I lean on those [assistants] a lot. It’s a comfort knowing they have all been through this. They really think about all the issues we might face.”
Woods mentioned the Presidents Cup and the leadership team on his website Friday, writing:
“I am fired up for the Presidents Cup next week. It will be great to be around the guys and try to help our team any way I can to win. I had a blast doing it last year at the Ryder Cup and we have another great captain in Steve Stricker. We tried to keep the band together with Jim Furyk, Davis Love III and myself, and added Fred Couples, to maintain consistency and unity.”
Stricker said working with Love last year was a great learning experience, but two other captains for whom he played most influenced him. Paul Azinger, who captained the winning 2008 Ryder Cup team, Stricker’s first Ryder Cup, stood out. Without an injured Woods, Azinger rallied his American squad to a five-point victory at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville.
“From the standpoint of organization, the pod system he had in place, making everyone a part of the process and his general overall enthusiasm, I think Paul is the guy who has influenced me the most,” Stricker said. “There was nothing he left to chance. We could not have been more prepared to play golf that week. He was on a mission, and that fed into all of us when we got on the golf course.”
His first Presidents Cup appearance came in 1996—and then he didn’t play in another until 2007. The late Arnold Palmer was the captain, and Stricker still marvels at how that U.S. team beat an International squad that featured Price, Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
“I have a picture in my office still of me going out on the course the first day of the matches and he’s shaking my hand and he’s giving me one of those looks. He’s got that stone face on him, almost glaring, like, You better go out and get me a point. And you definitely didn’t want to let down Arnold Palmer,” Stricker said. “[We were] playing an International team that we didn’t know how in the heck we were going to beat. … We had our studs for sure. But we also had Arnie. How can you lose with Arnold Palmer leading the way?”
That experience alone lingers when Stricker hears about a potential American romp.
Experience also informs another concern. At this juncture, fatigue is an issue, though neither team is immune from it.
“Our guys have really played well this year, and you just hope that they can continue it for one more week. You hope they don’t run out of gas,” he said. “I know what it’s like. The hope is that once they get there, adrenaline kicks in and they are good for one more week.”
He has every reason to feel uneasy. But he also feels good.
“This has been a great thrill for me,” he said. “It’s nerve-racking for sure. And I feel it more now that it’s close. But there’s a lot of anticipation. It’s exciting, too. I feel like we’ve done all we could to be ready, and I’m just going to try to enjoy it as much as possible.”