Mr. Comeback

Steve Stricker (left) high-fives with Tiger Woods at the 2012 Ryder Cup. Stricker says it’s “strange” to play team golf. “All of a sudden you’re teammates with a guy you try to beat the rest of the year.” (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
In 2003, golfer Steve Stricker played so poorly that he lost his PGA Tour card. So how did he climb his way back into golf’s inner circle of elite players? By the only way he knew how—working his you-know-what off.

Among the golfing millionaires of the PGA Tour, Steve Stricker, ’90 AHS is admired as Mr. Consistency. A steady, soft-spoken, no-nonsense Midwesterner. Certainly no egotist.

So what’s with the big capital “I” so proudly displayed in his office?

“That’s my college letter,” he says. “I played for Ed Beard in the early ’90s, and those years really shaped who I am.”

Stricker hails from tiny Edgerton, Wis., where he played high-school baseball and basketball. But his passion was golf, an individual sport made for a strong-willed, self-contained guy like him. A small-town guy who found the sprawling campus of the University of Illinois “a little overwhelming.”

“I had some growing up to do,” Stricker admits.

And he did—as part of the Beard-coached varsity golf team that won its first Big Ten title in 1988, during Stricker’s sophomore year. “I was living in Bromley Hall, just hoping to be a good college player,” he says. “Coach Beard made us run laps and work out in the weight room, which was almost unheard of for golfers. And while golf wasn’t exactly cool yet, we had the support of the rest of the school.

“When we hosted the Big Ten championship on [the University’s] Orange and Blue golf courses, [basketball great] ’93 LAS came out to watch us. That meant a lot. A member of the Flyin’ Illini cared about the golf team!”

Stricker earned All-America honors that year and the next but never pictured himself teeing it up with the top players on TV. “That would be thinking too far ahead,” he says. After turning pro in 1990, Stricker won twice in four years on the Canadian Tour, a minor-league golf circuit. That convinced him to try the PGA Tour, where he entered 75 tournaments before his first victory at the 1996 Kemper Open. “After that I thought, ‘I guess I can compete at this level,’” Stricker recalls. His Kemper triumph earned the 29-year-old golfer a pair of distinctions: He was the first Illinois grad to win a Tour event since Bob Goalby ’53 in 1971 and the only Tour winner who was sleeping with his caddie.

It’s OK, they were married. Nicki Stricker, the daughter of Steve’s longtime swing coach, spent the mid-’90s as the only Tour wife who doubled as her husband’s caddie. “People kept saying, ‘Forget it. You’ll ruin your marriage—or your game,’” he recalls. “But that just made us want to prove we could do it.” And sure enough, they proved every doubter wrong. Stricker notched another victory and earned $1.4 million, fourth best on the Tour. “And we never had an argument.”

Never?

He laughs. “Never. It’s a high-pressure game, and there was a round when everything was going wrong. I lost my cool. And Nicki knew what to say. She said, ‘Get your head out of your you-know-what, and hit the ball!’”

Nicki dropped her husband’s 40-pound golf bag in time to bring their first child, daughter Bobbi, into the world in 1998. Since then, Steve has won 10 more Tour titles, establishing himself as one of the finest golfers on Earth. He has teed it up all over the world, starring for the United States’ team in pressure-packed Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup matches—quite a career for a guy who almost quit the game before he turned 40.

Flying elbow
Stricker’s career crisis began a little more than a decade ago. After reaching the top five on the money list, winning more than $1 million a year, he tumbled. From 2003 through 2005 he won zero tournaments, missed the cut in 38 of 69 tries and fell to 337th in golf’s World Ranking. In 2003, he earned $150,590, barely enough to cover expenses on the coast-to-coast PGA Tour. He lost his PGA Tour card, which left him relying on sponsors’ invitations to play at all. Some pros never recover from such a collapse. (Remember David Duval?) Stricker fought his way back the only way he knew how. He worked his you-know-what off.

During the winter of 2005-06, golfers braving subfreezing temperatures to practice at Cherokee Country Club in Madison, Wis., heard thwack after thwack from a trailer at the foot of the driving range. It was Stricker, pounding balls into the snowy distance. Determined to solve his problems without sports psychologists or high-tech swing analysis, he spent months working with his father-in-law, former University of Wisconsin golf coach Dennis Tiziani. Stricker hit tens of thousands of balls, constantly checking his form in a mirror until he saw that his right elbow was moving skyward during his backswing—the “flying elbow” that bedevils duffers worldwide. He was also taking the club back too far, so that it pointed a little to the right at the top of his swing, rather than straight at the target.

“I owe a lot to that trailer,” he says. “That’s where I found my consistency. That’s where I found my game.”

Stricker kept his struggles in perspective by staying in touch with friends from his days at Illinois. There was Coach Beard, who retired in 2000; Beard’s successor, Mike Small ’89 BUS, a former teammate who played a year on the PGA Tour; and Small’s old Illini co-captain, Don Edwards ’88 BUS. And there was Kevin Fairfield ’90 LAS, Stricker’s college roommate, who died of a rare form of cancer in 2001 at age 33.

“I miss him,” Stricker says. “I’ve stayed in touch with Kevin’s parents. Whenever I play a tournament around Atlanta, they come out to follow me around the course.” Among other reasons—pride, frustration, competitive fire—he wanted to get back on Tour to please Fairfield’s parents.

It didn’t happen all at once. At golf’s highest level, the competition is so intense that a single stroke per round spells the difference between failure and success. From there it’s another stroke to greatness. In the depths of his slump, Stricker averaged 71.45 strokes per round and lost his Tour card. In 2005, creeping back toward respectability, he averaged 70.76, three-quarters of a stroke per round better. A year later, his swing self-cured, he vaulted from nowhere man to third on the money list by trimming another 1.21 strokes per round. In 2007 he won his first Tour event in six years, the Barclays, which sealed his comeback with a first-place check for $1.26 million. He earned $4.66 million that year, fourth best in the world. Steve Stricker was back.

Stricker’s climb was so steep that his peers voted him Comeback Player of the Year in 2006 and again in 2007, when he climbed from back to really back, as in the Top Ten of the Official World Golf Ranking. No other athlete in any major sport has ever snagged Comeback Player of the Year titles in consecutive years.

Tiger to Steve: “Get it done”
Through it all, he has managed to balance his fierce competitive drive with the nice-guy values of his Midwestern roots. Famously fan-friendly, Stricker signs hats, shirts, gloves, golf balls and skin (PG-rated only, please) for hours after his rounds. Casual fans know him as Tiger Woods’ favorite partner in Ryder Cup matches. “He’s a super guy,” says Woods, who regards his pal “Stricks” as one of the best putters in golf and one of the game’s coolest customers.

Since repeating as Comeback Player in 2007, Stricker has been nothing short of super. He has been among the Tour’s top 10 earners five times in that span, earning more than $30 million on the course and millions more in endorsements while keeping his home base in Madison, where he still hits balls into the snow every winter. From 2009 through 2011 he won the John Deere Classic, which is played in Silvis, Ill., a record three times in a row, leading Sports Illustrated magazine to ask if other entrants should be intimidated.

“I wouldn’t be intimidated by me,” he replied.

Woods teased him on the eve of the 2012 John Deere, saying, “Only one guy out here has won four in a row.” That would be Tiger, who won the Bay Hill Invitational from 2000 through 2003 and the Buick from 2005 through 2008. Turning serious, Woods urged him to “get it done.” Stricker made a late charge—five birdies in the final round—but fell just short, settling for yet another top-10 finish. During four years of brilliance at the Deere, he had reached the remarkable total of 100 under par.

Pressed on the matter, Stricker admits to taking pride in his record at the only Tour event played in Illinois. He is also quietly proud of his consistent excellence at the U.S. Open, the most grueling test of a player’s swing, his heart and his guts.

“It’s our national Open. As an American, it’s the one I want to win the most,” says Stricker, who has yet to win an Open or any of the game’s other three major titles: the Masters, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Those are the only holes in his résumé, but he doesn’t sweat it, noting, “I’ve done my part in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.” In fact Stricker has been a mainstay for U.S. teams in international competition, often teaming with Woods in two-man matches against the world’s best golfers.

“It’s strange, playing team golf today,” says the No. 1 man on Ed Beard’s Illinois teams of a quarter-century ago. The pro sport is “such an individual sport—we’re loners out there. Then all of a sudden you’re teammates with a guy you try to beat the rest of the year. The toughest is foursomes.” That’s the old-school format in which two-man teams take turns hitting the ball. “There’s nothing worse than hitting a shot that puts your partner in a lousy spot.”

His latest international gig was the 2013 Presidents Cup, in which Stricker struggled. Still, he helped Woods, Phil Mickelson and their teammates win the Cup. “Every time I was part of the United States team—those are the highlights of my career,” Stricker says.

Streaking for Stricker
Last fall, as America’s team was clinching the Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, a shapely streaker named Kimberly Webster sprinted up the final fairway. She had hoped to hug Tiger Woods but settled for a more accessible Tour star.

“She was coming right at me,” Stricker says. “I thought about tackling her, but then thought, ‘Nah, that’s not my job. I better just watch.’” Security guards nabbed the Stricker streaker, the U.S. won its seventh straight Presidents Cup, and he spent the winter of 2013-14 back home in Madison, hitting balls from the same old trailer toward the same old snow-crusted targets, checking his swing in a frosty mirror, planning his 21st year on the PGA Tour.

“I’m 47 years old. I don’t hit it as far as the younger guys,” says Stricker. “I can’t out-hit them, so I have to out-think them. That’s my advantage on kids 25 years younger than me.” He smiles. “At least that’s what I keep telling myself.”

Last season he cut back his schedule. “Nicki and I have two daughters. Bobbi’s 15, and Isabella’s 7. They like it when Dad stays home.” In 2013, he entered just 13 Tour events, half of a normal schedule. Of course, he made the cut in all 13, earning $4.4 million, trailing Woods and Mickelson but outdoing 248 of the other 254 golf geniuses on the PGA Tour.

“Can I do better? Yes.” Looking back at his path from Edgerton to Urbana-Champaign and beyond, the best golfer in UI history says he’s looking forward to 2014. “I’m proud to be part of the story of Illinois golf. Mike Small’s building the golf program into a powerhouse,” he says.

“But the story’s not over yet. Maybe I win the Open. Masters in 2015. If I can keep my elbow tucked, hit the ball straight, make a few putts …”