Monday, December 5, 2011

Steve Stricker

On Thanksgiving morning Steve Stricker gathered his wife, Nicki, and their two daughters, Bobbi and Izzi, and headed down the road about an hour south of Madison, WI to Steve's hometown of Edgerton. Many families across America were making similar voyages to see family and friends that same morning. In the case of the Strickers, they were embarking on a very big Thanksgiving Day meal.

"Edgerton is a town of about 4,000 people and this is the second year in a row that my family and I have headed up a community outreach program," said Stricker. "We helped feed 400 people that day. The thing that was really cool was to watch how much my two girls got into it. They were serving and cleaning tables and really enjoying themselves."

Surprised that a star athlete on top of the golf world would spend an important holiday doing charity work with his family? Then you must not know Steve Stricker very well. In fact, the most striking part about Steve Stricker may be how non-striking he is. If you are you looking for controversy, a criminal record, a flashy style or an over inflated ego- then you’re going to have to go elsewhere. There is nothing like that within a long par 5 of Stricker.

I texted him on a couple of occasions as we were hooking up for this story and he responded each time from a deer stand in rural Wisconsin. That is where you will likely find him this time of the year when he is home on his farm near Blancheville. An avid outdoorsman, Steve is as likely to shoot wild game as he is to shoot a low golf score; and he probably enjoys both about the same amount.

"The President's Cup put a little damper on my deer hunting this year," said Stricker. "It is something that Nicki (his wife) and I do together. We bow hunt even during gun season. I try to get her to go more often because she hunted a lot before we got married." 

This is Steve Stricker, one of the best golfers on the planet. In the past three years, Stricker has notched seven PGA Tour victories, won over $14.5 million and reached the number two spot in the World Golf Rankings. Today, Stricker is ranked #8 in the world and he has been among the world's top ten players for 141 consecutive weeks. In 2011, he finished in the top 20 of all four major championships.

But even more, Stricker is the guy who epitomizes his Midwestern roots and core values.  He’s polite, he’s well-mannered and he’s popular with fans, media and other players. He doesn’t take his success for granted and he is appreciative of all that golf has provided.  And his work ethic and determination are amazing, as evidenced by him being the only player to win the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year twice. He did it in back to back years. Think about that.

Success on the Tour was not always a given for Stricker. Prior to 2003, Stricker won three times on the PGA Tour in eight years. But, in 2004 he lost his tour card and was faced with going back to qualifying school in 2005. This was a time in his career when Stricker admits he thought his playing career might be over and he entertained the thought of finding another livelihood.

"I just had to go to work and revamp my swing. It took me an entire winter hitting balls out of a modified trailer into the snow. But, with the help of my father-in-law (Dennis Tiziani, PGA pro and former University of Wisconsin golf coach) I was able to shorten my backswing and improve my grip," recalls Stricker.

"The secret for me was making my swing simple enough so I could take ownership of it, particularly in pressure situations. I felt like I had to know my strengths and my weaknesses," said Stricker. "My goal was always to win again. But, I could never have imagined the type of success that I have had in the last six years."

Stricker’s story is a great model for golfers in the northern climates. Winter can be a perfect time for a swing change. "It sure is. You don't have to be playing golf every day," insists Stricker. "The winter is when I do the bulk of my practicing and work on my game."

The results speak for themselves.  But in addition to some great individual accomplishments, Stricker’s new game has given him the opportunity to find success and enjoyment in some of golf's high profile team competitions. He has been a member of four President's Cup teams (4-0), two Ryder Cup teams (1-1) and the Dunhill Cup (1-0). Stricker says those events are stressful for the players, but also lots of fun.

"One of the players at the President's Cup said, 'And we work hard to get on this team. Why'?" laughed Stricker. "I wouldn't change those weeks at all. It's my goal every year to make the Ryder Cup or President's Cup team."

Another hallmark of  Stricker’s participation in these events is his success and enjoyment in his partnership with the most famous golfer in the world. In recent years he has teamed up with Tiger Woods to form a truly formidable team.

"Tiger and I have a good relationship. We are two different people and we have a great amount of mutual respect for each other. I think he feels comfortable around me. We talk a lot about chipping and putting," said Stricker. "I want to be a friend to him. He is a good guy who is misunderstood at times."

Stricker and Woods were paired together in the President's Cup and they spent time as playing partners in last week's Chevron World Challenge at the Sherwood Country Club in California. Stricker can offer an up close perspective of Woods' current form on the course, which appears to be gaining momentum as evidenced by his win last week at the Chevron World Challenge. Woods in fact credited Stricker with a putting tip that has made a huge difference in the last month.

"Tiger is totally getting it back together. He is striking it right down the line and his ball compression is really solid. All he needs to do is see the ball go in the hole more often," said Stricker. "He started out his career making putts. After he went through his off-course problems, he lost confidence and it affected his putting. But, I expect big things from Tiger in 2012."

Stricker’s future should include big things as well – though he admits that overcoming a herniated disc between the C6-7 vertebrae has been a challenge. In fact, for six weeks leading up to the Presidents Cup, Stricker was sidelined from the golf course. He’s even shopped his MRI to four different doctors and is trying all he can to avoid surgery.

"This is the same exact injury that Peyton Manning has. I have actually talked to him a couple of times to see what kind of advice he could give me," confided Stricker. "His healing seems to be going well and I think he will play again. That makes me optimistic about my situation."

Stricker turns 45 years old in February. He played in 19 tournaments this year and thinks he will play 16-17 events in 2012. That said, he still feels like he has a lot of golf left in his tank.

"Each winter I threaten to get away from it. It is a tough balancing act between being a dad and a PGA tour player," says Stricker. "I have had a great run and I still feel very competitive. With what I have been through, I hate to walk away just yet."

That’s a good thing for a player who still has a lot to offer golf, both inside and outside the ropes. But as one of golf’s truly good guys looks ahead to 2012, he still has some unfinished business in 2011.  So, in the meantime, look for the deer population to get thinner near Blancheville.

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