By Gary Van Sickle
The PGA Tour officially renamed its senior tour as PGA Tour Champions last year, but whom are we kidding? Let’s just call it The Bernhard Langer Tour and get it over with.
Langer owns this league. He has ranked No. 1 on the money list in eight of his nine seasons, won seven senior major championships and, at 59, shows no sign of slowing.
No one has dethroned the two-time Masters champion as the tour’s king of the hill, but there’s a new kid in town who might have the game to do it. Enter Steve Stricker, who will make his senior debut today in the Tucson Conquistadors Classic.
Suddenly feeling old? It’s hard to believe that soft-spoken kid from Edgerton, Wis., isn’t a kid anymore.
“It’s a little weird to turn 50,” Stricker conceded. “I’m not depressed about it at all. I’m excited to go out there and give it a try.”
Stricker is still fit and limber, looks more like 40 than 50, hits it pretty well and likely will rank as the Champions Tour’s best putter the moment he strokes his first putt. He won nine times in his 40s and had three top-10 finishes last year, including a runner-up in Memphis that earned him a spot in the British Open. He’s still got game. So does fellow Madison, Wis., resident, Jerry Kelly, who turned 50 in November and also could make an impact.
The only question about Stricker starring on PGA Tour Champions is whether he’ll get around to it. He thinks he can still win on the PGA Tour and therefore plans to play only about six senior events in 2017. He has duties as the host of the American Family Insurance Championship, a senior event that kicked off last year in Madison. Stricker also is U.S. captain of the Presidents Cup team and wants to stay close to the PGA Tour through this fall to keep an eye on his potential team members.
“Everybody says, Oh, you’re gonna kill it out there,” Stricker said. “I’ve never thought I’m going to dominate at any level. These guys are no slouches. They know how to win. I can’t just stroll out there and they’ll hand me a winner’s check. The seniors may not be as deep as the PGA Tour, but it’s probably just as hard to win. I’ll have to be at the top of my game.’’
Meanwhile, Stricker is exempt for the Masters and British Open. His request for a U.S. Open exemption was declined by the USGA, but he intends to try to qualify. He’s still thinking about majors, the one thing missing from his resume.
“Obviously, that’s a hole in my career,” Stricker said. “It would’ve been nice to win one. I’d still love to win one, and I’ve got at least two opportunities this year. I’d love to win one on the Champions Tour, too, but you can’t hold senior majors in the same light. It wouldn’t fill that gap in my career.”
Stricker turned 50 with an unexpected bang. He went to dinner with his wife, Nicki, and a couple of friends and then to a sports bar afterwards to watch a Wisconsin Badgers basketball game on TV. That’s where he ran smack into the birthday party that he hoped he’d avoided, with some 50 friends waiting.
“Nicki really pulled off a surprise,” he said. “I had no idea.”
The party was fun, except he didn’t see much of the game. “That was probably a good thing,” Stricker said. “The Badgers got hammered by Ohio State.”
On the senior circuit, the surprise will be if Stricker isn’t eventually the one dropping the hammer.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle