ERIN, Wis. – For several years, Steve Stricker has been the big cheese of Wisconsin golf. So, it goes without saying that the 50-year-old Stricker, a 12-time PGA Tour winner, wanted a chance to play in the first U.S. Open to be contested in his native state. As he wrote in the official tournament program, "On Thursday, June 15, the sound I most want to hear is a starter's announcement: 'Now on the tee, from Madison, Wisconsin, Steve Stricker.' "
When it became apparent that Stricker wouldn't earn a spot in the field at Erin Hills through one of the first 15 exemption categories, he turned to No. 16: the special exemption. Stricker wrote a letter asking the USGA to give him a free pass based on his career credentials and hometown ties.
Stricker is an unassuming, humble Midwesterner, birthplace Edgerton, Wis., population 5,286, where signs on both of the main entrances into town welcome visitors to the “Home of Steve Stricker.”
The USGA has saved the special exemption for unique circumstances such as the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, former champs and World Golf Hall of Fame members. Hale Irwin won the 1990 U.S. Open after being granted a special exemption. But it also once turned down two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, and green-lit a berth to teenage sensation Aaron Baddeley.
The USGA considered Stricker's request and denied it. USGA executive director Mike Davis called. So did Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and championships. They made the right decision. Too many spots already are reserved for players who don't qualify (“To keep the Open truly open, limit exemptions,” June 5, http://bit.ly/2t6sdbc).
"I really had no hopes of getting a positive response back, and that came true," Stricker said. "I was fine with that. I really was. But then as it kept going on, I was like, You know, I really want to play here. This is our first U.S. Open. Then I had more and more people come up to me and say, 'Hey, why aren't you in?' And pretty soon it became a little chip on my shoulder that I had to work a little bit harder to try to get in."
To compete in his 20th U.S. Open, Stricker had to do it the old-fashioned way: earn it. And he did just that, grabbing medalist honors at the Memphis, Tenn., sectional on June 5.
"That was the most satisfaction that I've had in a while, was just knowing that I made it," he said.
Stricker said he has played Erin Hills a half-dozen times. When he first played here, in 2006 or 2007 – he couldn't remember for sure – it reminded him of Shinnecock Hills, the famed course in Long Island that will host its fifth Open in 2018. Stricker also played nine holes from the tips, measuring more than 8,300 yards, and recalled hitting fairway woods and hybrids into most of the greens. Stricker may have the most experience of anyone in the field here but said he hasn't played Erin Hills in the past seven years.
"The course is in magnificent shape, probably the best-conditioned golf course we may see ever in a major," he said.
For months, Stricker has listened to the U.S. Open buzz build in the Badger State. In the middle of the winter, he stopped by his local bank and the teller asked him, "Hey, are you going to be playing in the U.S. Open?"
"That's the plan," he said.
Andy North, a lifelong Wisconsin resident and two-time U.S. Open champion, empathizes with the challenge facing Stricker.
"In talking to him he's already said, 'I've had to say no more this week than I probably ever have,' ” North said. “He's here to play in a golf tournament. He's not here to entertain people all week long."
At 2:20 p.m. CDT Thursday, "Now on the tee, from Madison, Wisconsin …," will be music to Stricker's ears.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak