Keeping Score

Stricker plays it cool in 'Summer of Steve’

Steve Stricker
Steve Stricker will be skipping a major championship on the 50-and-older tour this week to play in one of his Midwestern favorites, the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic.

AKRON, Ohio – He wins major championships these days as if they’re reduced for clearance. Was it this easy for you, Tiger?

He holes out so often, it’s as if he’s putting into a funnel. Color us jealous, maybe even a little bitter.

He is No. 1 in the senior circuit’s unofficial rankings and would be the likely first pick in any Champions Tour fantasy draft. Wait, they’ve got that?

His wife, Nicki, caddied for him when he finally snagged a USGA trophy last month, at age 52. Good playing, dear. Now get home and clean out the garage.

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Steve Stricker

This week at the Bridgestone Senior Players here at Firestone Country Club, Steve Stricker is trying to join Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Bernhard Langer as the only players to capture three senior major titles in a season. That’s the strongest threesome looking for a fourth since John, Paul and George needed a new drummer.

Thursday, Stricker made a hole-in-one en route to a routine 65, if a 65 at Firestone’s South Course ever can be called routine. That’s a big “No,” in case you were wondering.

Actually, it was almost a 65. Stricker was 5 under par and in the 18th fairway, 140 yards from the hole, when play was halted for an approaching storm and heavy rain. When play was about to resume two hours later, another storm cell popped up like some kind of weather Whac-A-Mole game. Another downpour followed, and play eventually was suspended for the day (scores).

Life is good for Steve Stricker these days. The only things we know that he can’t do are to be in two places at once and to hold back the tears after a victory. Hey, he’s an aging, ancient, sentimental senior male, so he’s allowed to cry at everything now, including the “Happy Gilmore” scene in which the one-handed ghost of Chubbs returns.

It might have been a tough call for Stricker about where to play this week. The PGA Tour is holding the John Deere Classic, a tournament in which Stricker practically can put on his golf glove and vault into contention. He won it three times, has a big crew of fans from his home in Madison, Wis., who follow him three hours south to Moline, Ill., to root him on and feels comfortable on the course.

Stricker also likes the fishing pond on the John Deere test-center grounds so much that he and Nicki once got locked in the area after dark when officials didn’t know they were there. It took tournament officials an hour to get them and their courtesy car out.

The ace and the unfinished 5-under score erased any doubt about Stricker’s choice. “It was a hard decision, and it wasn’t,” he said.

The hard part was passing up The Classic, or JDC, as the John Deere Classic is known around the Quad Cities.

“I’ve had a lot of success there,” Stricker said Thursday. “I wish these events were on different weeks so I could play them both. I’m not second-guessing my decision at all.”

A quick look at the statistics might have made the choice easier. In seven PGA Tour starts this season, Stricker has one top-25 finish, a T-22 at the Memorial Tournament. In eight Champions Tour starts, Stricker has won twice – both major championships – plus one runner-up finish among his five top-10s.

If not for captaining next year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, which means he’ll want to play a few more PGA Tour events to keep in contact with potential team members, he probably should go all-senior sooner, not later. Winning is fun. Not contending is not fun.

You know what else is fun? Being king of the hill. Stricker is the senior circuit’s top-gun apparent, although he does rank second on the money list behind Scott McCarron.

Stricker hasn’t been king of any hill since his amateur days growing up in Edgerton, Wis., and even then, he didn’t beat local rivals Jerry Kelly and Skip Kendall all the time.

This is a great time for Stricker to bask in the sun and enjoy beating other golfers on a regular basis for a change. Sure, he posted 12 victories on the regular tour, but he never won a major championship. He had a few chances, and a lot of observers thought that he had the ability, but his game got nervy at times on the big stage. There was an ugly shank at Merion in the 2013 U.S. Open’s final round and a double bogey at 10 when he suddenly found himself tied for the lead in the 2007 U.S. Open’s final round at Oakmont, to remember two.

One poor swing can destroy the confidence required to win a major. Ask Colin Montgomerie. Ask Jay Haas. Ask Gil Morgan.

Well, all that major history is something Stricker let go of a long time ago. The new history he’s trying to make is what interests him.

That’s another reason why he’s here. Besides loving Firestone, he knows that bit about winning a third senior major in one season is a big deal for a guy who played in the Ryder Cup, gave putting lessons to Tiger Woods and hosts a Champions Tour event in Madison but never became a big deal himself.

“I heard there were only three other guys who have done that,” Stricker said of his major run. “That was something that motivated me to come here, for sure.”

Stricker birdied his first two holes and added an ace at the seventh hole, a 7-iron shot from 182 yards. He celebrated in classic subdued Midwesterner style by briefly pumping both arms into the air, grinning widely, and high-fiving his playing competitors and caddies.

“That’s when you know things are going your way,” Stricker said after the hole-in-one.

That’s when you knew? Not when you won a pair of majors by six shots each this year? Not when you won three senior-circuit events in your spare time last year?

That’s just the sort of Midwestern humility that makes Stricker who he is: popular with the fans, media and fellow players.

Well, it’s been a good summer for him, maybe his best ever, and it’s not over yet. The Senior British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes is still to come later this month. Stricker is entered, but after playing 16 tournaments this year, he said the fatigue factor has him leaning toward not going to England.

He was asked if having a chance to win a record fourth senior major title in one season (that’s presuming a win this week) would influence his decision about playing the British Senior Open.

“It might,” he said. “But I’m a long way from that.”

Either way, he’s enjoying the "Summer of Steve."

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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