Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Steve Stricker, #2 and Trying Harder

On Friday the top ranked golfer in the world invited a few friends and a handful (literally one hand) of news media to PGA Tour Headquarters to make a statement to the world. Despite criticism from many about the timing, the content and the motive, the top ranked golfer in the world stayed true to form and did it his way.

Steve Stricker is currently the #2 ranked golfer in the world. He is quiet. His playing style lacks the flair of the man ahead of him in the World Rankings, but the Wisconsin native has won five of the past 14 PGA Tour events that he has played in and he has vaulted to the number two spot in the world.

In December of 2009, Stricker made a statement of his own to the world and did it in his own unassuming style. He gave his wife, Nicki, a more opulent ring to re-affirm his love to her in the wake of the news about the off-course behavior surrounding the top ranked golfer in the world.

Nicki was Steve’s caddy until their first daughter, Bobbi, was born in 1998. Another daughter, Isabella, was born in 2006. Nicki knows enough about the tour and its potential pitfalls. “I wanted to show her where my heart and devotion were,” said Steve.

She knows her man, “He continues to fight these battles inside himself. He wants to be home with us,” Nicki says. “If all the tournaments were in Madison, that would be perfect. I know it matters to him, to be the best that he can. But, it doesn’t define him. Trophies tarnish. The tour moves on. It’s more the person and the man he is that’s important.”      

The climb to fame was not an easy one for Stricker. Following the 2005 season, his third bad year in a row, he plummeted to 337th in the World Rankings. He retreated to the bleak Wisconsin winter and started pounding yellow range balls from the open side of a mobile home into a snow covered field. He was searching for answers that might reveal themselves from an Astroturf mat.

Stricker who turns 43 years old on February 23, recalls, “That’s the time I remember best, at the end of ’05 when I knew I needed to do something to move on. That’s when I had more of a purpose than at anytime in my life.”  

Roll the clock forward to September 2009 when Stricker posted a 4-0 mark in the President’s Cup. He was paired with the number one ranked golfer in the world in all three team matches. Stricker carried his weight in those matches, cementing his place as one of today’s true golf stars.

“There was a time when I tried to measure my game to his,” says Stricker. “Tiger does phenomenal things. I realized that I just need to do my little things as well as I can and not worry about what he does. I appreciate his game, but I’m longer in awe of it.”

As the top ranked player in the world conducted his news conference in Florida on Friday, he did so with the steely reserve that we have come to expect from him. He openly acknowledged that his life has changed forever. He looked determined and he was focused. No tears were shed. 

Steve Stricker is genuine and emotional in a different right. He routinely cries after he wins a PGA Tour event. Few realize that crying demonstrates how difficult the process of winning is for him. Crowds make him uneasy. The idea of speaking in front people makes him terribly nervous. When in college at the University of Illinois, Stricker actually took a course called Stage Fright Speech Communication.

To say that Stricker is grounded might be the greatest understatement ever uttered. He has rebounded from a professional low that few have ever experienced. He takes his success in stride, but takes nothing for granted. “I think I grew so much as a player and as a person during those three bad years. It’s funny how it works, but it was best for me. I can’t see anything worse that what I saw then, so I am not worried if I struggle a bit now.

“I wouldn’t say that I am content. I still have some things that I want to do. But, I am not a prisoner to the outcome anymore. It’s all on my terms,” says the world’s #2 ranked player.

On his own terms, would be how many described Friday’s news conference conducted by the top ranked player in the world. “Typical Tiger,” remarked Alex Micelli from The Golf Channel. “He is always getting the last word and it’s always on his terms.”

Tom Watson had his own opinion last week at the Dubai Desert Classic. “Tiger has to take ownership for what he has done. When he comes back, he has to show some humility to the public. He messed up. He knows he messed up. The world knows he messed up, and he has to take ownership of that. It’s going to be interesting to see how he handles his return to public life.”

In an upcoming article for the April issue of Golf Digest, veteran writer Dan Jenkins makes this observation, “Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus……. never sold themselves as the greatest Family Values brand ever, and conquered the marketplace with it, shamelessly scooping up hundreds of millions of dollars while saying ‘My family will always come first.’

“They were never what Tiger allowed himself to become from the start: spoiled, pampered, hidden, guarded, orchestrated and entitled. I’ll tell you what Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus were at their peak,” says Jenkins. “They were every bit as popular as Tiger, they endured similar demands on their time, but they handled it courteously, often with ease and enjoyment.

“They were accessible, likeable, knowable, conversant, as gracious in loss as they were in victory, and above all, amazingly helpful to those of us in the print lodge who discovered them,” Jenkins concluded. “That was their brand. All the things Tiger never was.”

Maybe, in this case, Number One could actually learn something from Number Two………           

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