Teeing off with . . . Steve Stricker

                                                                                                                                                    Feb. 9, 2010

Now at No. 2, Stricker is nice guy
who definitely won't finish last

By John Davis

     PGA Tour Qualifying School is a meat grinder of an event that can make or break the career of many a golf pro.

   In Steve Stricker’s case, it did both . . . the same year.

   The personable pro from Wisconsin, whose career appeared to be at a dead end about four years ago, suddenly is ranked No. 2 in the world and might have inherited the dubious distinction of “best player who has never won a major.”

    His victory last week in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera was his fourth in his last 15 tournaments and, in case you hadn’t noticed, in three outings this year he has tied for 10th, finished third and won.

    Stricker has noticed, but more than anything, he hasn’t forgotten how low he sank. How about No. 337 in the world rankings, less than five years ago?

    “I remember where I was and where I am now,” Stricker said Sunday after his victory in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t get any better.”

Associated Press/Reed Saxon

    What’s important in this case is how it got better.

    There was no magic potion, no session with a brain or swing guru to snap him out of it, no one who gave him a swift kick in the keester, except himself. John Daly, please take note.

     For three years in a row, despite his immense talent, Stricker finished outside the top 150 and posted only three top-10 finishes in a four-year span.

     Then came Q-school in 2005, where he failed to regain his tour card.

     “It was a reality check,” he said. “It was a humbling experience, and I just decided I needed to bear down and fix a couple things that were really bothering me, and I took it upon myself really to do that.

      “I think that was really the turnaround. I didn’t listen to anybody else. I didn’t listen to psychologists or my swing coach or anybody else. It was me who decided what I needed to do and what needed to be fixed.”

      What Stricker needed was a sounding board and he found one in father-in-law Dennis Tiziani, the retired golf coach at the University of Wisconsin.

      He also needed a place to practice in the off-season, but instead of moving to Florida, Arizona or California, he converted a mobile home at his Madison residence into a heated hitting bay where he launched golf balls that disappeared into snow banks.

     In two consecutive years, he was named “Comeback Player of the Year,” which might be a first in the history of any major professional sport.

      “It’s a great testament to his will,” said Luke Donald, who finished in second place, 2 shots behind Stricker, in LA. “It’s a tough game mentally when you’re not playing well, and to break that and come back and be where he is right now, that’s great going. He’s obviously found it, and he’s worked hard and he has a lot of belief in himself now.”

      Stricker has finished in the top 10 in 14 of his last 25 events and also starred in the Ryder Cup. So, is he ready to overtake Tiger Woods, who is serving a self-imposed indefinite suspension from the game, as the No. 1 player in the rankings? He is far too humble to say so, and the guess here is that he really isn’t thinking along those lines.

      “We all know who the best player in the world is,” Stricker said. “I went down that road when he came out on tour.

       “I tried to compare my game to his back in ’96 or ’97, and there was no comparison for my game to his back then. I’ll just continue to do what I do, and that’s practice hard and work at it and try to improve.”

      Through the trials and tribulations, Stricker’s emotions have shown through. He cried openly after winning The Barclays in 2007, after all three victories in 2009 and again at Riviera.

      “I keep surprising myself I guess is the biggest thing,” Stricker said. “As long as I keep doing that and surprising myself and working hard at it, it’s been a great ride the last four years.”

       Those who know him best aren’t at all surprised how Stricker has played and how he has reacted afterward.

      And those who cover the PGA Tour regularly, couldn’t be much more pleased. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy” is such a cliché and an expression experienced writers try hard to avoid, but it fits Stricker as well as anyone in the game.

     At No. 1, No. 2, or No. 337, that much will never change.

     "Where it lies" author John Davis is an Arizona resident who has been covering pro golf since 1979.

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