'Mr. Nice Guy' takes aim at 'Stricker Slam'

Steve Stricker

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SILVIS, Ill. – Steve Stricker’s scoring average at TPC Deere Run since 2009 is a staggering 65.33. That’s 4.3 shots better than the rest of the field. It’s no wonder folks jokingly call this the Steve Stricker Invitational presented by John Deere. He owns this place.

“I love to deer hunt, and the first thing I see when I walk in from the parking lot every day is this big huge deer in front of the clubhouse,” Stricker said. “If a tournament was meant for me to win . . .”

Stricker looks to join an elite group of players who have won the same PGA Tour event four consecutive years. They’re calling it the “Stricker Slam.” Only Young Tom Morris (Open Championship), Walter Hagen (PGA), Gene Sarazen (Miami Open) and Tiger Woods (Bay Hill and Buick Invitational) have accomplished the feat.

Stricker and Woods were paired together at The Greenbrier Classic last week, and the two talked about Stricker’s upcoming quest.

“Yeah, I talked to him about it,” Stricker said, “and you know, in his own little way – I think we all know what his way is – he told me to get it done.”

Stricker stood on the 18th green Wednesday afternoon and eyed the John Deere Gator utility vehicle on display in the greenside pond that goes to the winner. Stricker said he doesn’t think about the fat checks he has taken home from the John Deere Classic (roughly $2.6 million). He thinks about the equipment he has received.

Last year Stricker, a resident of Madison, Wis., upgraded his other “trophy” to a farm tractor complete with air-conditioning. He compared it to driving a Cadillac.

Stricker’s performances here in the Quad Cities area that straddles the Mississippi River is becoming legendary. There’s even a Steve Stricker bobblehead doll (with the wrong-color hair). During Wednesday’s pro-am round, a young girl didn’t have anything for Stricker to sign, so she took off her yellow Toms shoe and had it inked. He finds all the attention this week a bit uncomfortable at times, but you’d never know it.

Stricker’s first victory here, in 2009, was due to a perfect week of scrambling. He got up and down 17 out of 17 times. And when Stricker did hit greens, he put the ball close, ranking third in approach shots from 125 yards. He led the Tour in that category in 2009.

In 2010, Stricker followed Paul Goydos’ opening 59 with a bogey-free 60. (Those are the two lowest scores ever posted in the same round in PGA Tour history.) Stricker's four rounds that week: 60-66-62-70.

The most dramatic victory of Stricker’s career, however, came last year.

After making a 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, Stricker found a fairway bunker off the tee on No. 18. He got up and down from 182 yards (over water) for birdie to win for the third consecutive time. Since 2003, only one out of every 10 players to find that bunker have made birdie.

Kyle Stanley was the victim of Stricker’s heroics. It was Stanley’s first time in contention at a Tour event. Stricker, aka Mr. Nice Guy, actually apologized to Stanley after landing at the Open Championship. (They were on the same charter flight.)

“He obviously had nothing to be sorry for,” Stanley said.

If anyone seems poised to upstage Stricker this week, it might be Zach Johnson, another Midwestern gem who posts a lot of birdies here. Johnson has played in the John Deere Classic more times than any other event on Tour. He tied for second in 2009 and tied for third last year. He also knows the pressure that comes with trying to win tournaments back to back to back. Johnson won the Valero Texas Open in 2008 and 2009.

“Confidence anywhere is a good formula,” Johnson said. “It really breeds momentum, and when you have a world-class player in Steve, it’s not all that surprising to me.”

Stricker’s caddie, Jimmy Johnson, said it’s like old-home week for his boss. He’s even good when it doesn’t count: Stricker birdied the last three holes of his Wednesday pro-am. With conditions being softer, Stricker said scores will be low. TPC Deere Run leads the Tour in birdies, yielding 15,558 since 2003.

Stricker thinks often about that gutsy shot from the bunker, undoubtedly the most thrilling finish to his 12 victories on Tour.

“Instead of watching those types of finishes,” he said, “I was able to provide one.”

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