Steve Stricker’s cheeks were flushed Wisconsin Badger red.
It’s not as if this news was a surprise. Stricker had a pretty good idea for the past five years that he would be named the 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. We all did. He got the official confirmation phone call from the PGA of America in December.
Yet Stricker could barely speak at the start of Wednesday morning’s news conference in Milwaukee. He had all that time to prepare for being introduced as Team USA’s captain for the matches at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.
But when he sat down for a televised news conference in front of local media and Golf Channel’s national audience, the enormity of the job hit him.
“It’s truly, truly a dream come true,” Stricker said, struggling to get the words out. He trembled slightly, and his voice was shaky. “It’s an honor to represent the PGA of America. I’m truly humbled by this opportunity.”
His voice cracked several times. He had to dry an eye with his finger. He was as choked up with emotion as he was when he won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions seven years ago, his last of 12 PGA Tour victories.
So, go ahead and ask: Did Team USA pick the right man for the job?
Well, did you not read the preceding paragraphs? Stricker often jokes about his old-man-crying routine when he wins. The Ryder Cup captaincy is no joke. His passion, sincerity and authenticity as a human being makes him an ideal captain.
I never thought of him as a leader until he captained the last Presidents Cup team. I’ve known Stricker since he was an up-and-coming amateur in Wisconsin, since he failed at Q-School and had to keep playing in Canada. I was there when he got his first PGA Tour victory, at the 1996 Kemper Open, with his wife, Nicki, on the bag.
Stricker never has acted his age, which come Saturday will be 52. He still walks with a youthful bounce in his step.
He has the reputation as Mr. Nice Guy, and it’s deserved. That’s why his appearance in an Avis commercial in which he drives slowly and later deadpans, “I’m a savage,” was devastatingly funny. He reputation is well earned. He gets angry and frustrated at golf, but he’s still always civil.
Once when I was trying to organize a family portrait for a Sports Illustrated piece I was writing on him and his brother, he apologized for being short with me the previous day after he’d finished his round at the Players Championship. I didn’t think he had been short, but he explained he’d had a bad experience on a previous photo shoot that went from a promised 45 minutes to four hours.
He was thrilled when I said I’d kill the portrait idea if he’d send me some usable family-at-play shots from his cellphone. Those snapshots probably were better than any portrait, as it turned out.
Stricker has grown into this role. It seems like the right place and the right time. The Wisconsin connection is nice, but it’s not as if the fans weren’t going to root for the Americans any less if the captain came from, say, Iowa – well, maybe that’s a bad example. Let’s say Florida. The captain didn’t need a home-state connection; it’s just a nice bonus.
The U.S. has lost seven of the past nine Ryder Cups and has been trounced in two of the past three. The Ryder Cup always seems so important, but this one honestly feels even bigger than usual. Was there a dire urgency to win in France last year? Maybe, but I never felt it, and the Americans didn’t play like it.
At Whistling Straits, the U.S. players will see the emotion pouring out of Stricker that week. He’ll come to tears in the team room, probably more than once. What player wouldn’t try to do the impossible, such as hold back Lake Michigan with a pitchfork, for a captain in front of his family and friends?
Being motivated and winning the Ryder Cup are two different things. Stricker’s team won’t come up short because of a lack of motivation. It might not win, but motivation will not be the reason.
Did that magical something extra help Ben Crenshaw’s team rally in 1999 for a victory? Was there something about Paul Azinger’s energy that lifted the 2008 team? Were players driven to win for Davis Love III in 2016 after the team’s collapse at Medinah in 2012?
I don’t have the answers, just like I don’t know how important the captain is to the actual Ryder Cup outcome. The players play, and the captain captains. One team wins, and one loses. The captain debate goes on. Plenty of poor captains won Ryder Cups, and plenty of good captains lost them. I’m tempted to name a few of each, but that’s not the point.
Stricker’s selection is historic. He’s the first person from Edgerton, Wis., to be named a Ryder Cup captain. Just kidding, although he is Edgerton’s most famous son. Seriously, though, Stricker is the first player to become a U.S. captain without ever winning a major championship.
Which means the U.S. is only decades behind the Europeans, who have used majorless captains for years. Whatever the Europeans’ secret is, it is not the captain’s major-championship pedigree. Paul McGinley, Bernard Gallacher, Sam Torrance, Thomas Bjorn and Colin Montgomerie captained winning Ryder Cup teams in the past three decades.
Stricker will blaze a new trail for future U.S. captains. Once he settled into the moment in Milwaukee, Stricker said all the things that Ryder Cup captains are supposed to say. The only interruption was when his cellphone sounded while he was talking.
He laughed and put it on the floor so that it would be out of the way. When asked who it was, he checked and saw that it was a text from John Daly. “I just watched his workout video this morning on TV,” said Stricker, a line that made the ballroom erupt in laughter.
John Daly, the golfer, is notoriously overweight, admittedly lazy and has chastised Tiger Woods and other players for spending too much time in the gym. His workout video features beer curls.
John Daly, the two-time Winter Olympics skeleton slider, has an actual workout video. So maybe Stricker wasn’t cracking a joke.
Stricker said a few things of note:
“Whenever you get beat, you’re not happy.” That covers any post-France sniping, from Patrick Reed to the fake-or-not-fake spat between Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
“We just got outplayed. My deal is, we’re moving forward. The past doesn’t mean anything.” The Americans didn’t lose because of a few putts not falling. They lost because seven or eight of the 12 team members played horribly. And I love somebody who says, “My deal is…” He talks the way I do. Maybe that’s because I lived in Wisconsin for a few decades and still have beer and cheese in my blood.
On naming Jim Furyk as an assistant captain: “I’d have Jim in this job even if this wasn’t put in place by the Ryder Cup committee. He’s got all the tools to help us go win back this cup.”
Stricker was asked later on “Morning Drive” how he can get the best from Woods and Phil Mickelson, two superstars who have losing records in the Ryder Cup. Stricker said it’s up to them to be prepared, and he’s sure they will be around “in some capacity.” He’s not ruling them out as players. Which is wise, given Mickelson’s recent Pebble Beach victory.
If Stricker can unlock that inner Tiger, his captaincy will be memorable. He’s an official Friend of Tiger and a former Ryder Cup partner of Woods’. One of Stricker’s first congratulatory texts Wednesday morning came from Woods.
If Woods were to go 4-0 in a Ryder Cup just once, I’d like the Americans’ chances of winning.
I don’t think you’ll see much second-guessing about Stricker’s selection, other than his 3-7-1 record in three Ryder Cups. Who else was there? Woods and Mickelson? They’re still carving out legacies, just not in the Ryder Cup.
The Ryder Cup captaincy may be Stricker’s greatest lifetime honor. With 12 PGA Tour victories and no major titles, Stricker would seem to have no shot at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Winning a Ryder Cup in Wisconsin would be even greater. But don’t expect a speech. Stricker would be an emotional mess, and proud of it.