TOWN OF ERIN – Maybe if Steve Stricker were more self-centered, more standoffish, less concerned about how he comes across to others, he would have won a major championship or three.
It takes a certain kind of ruthlessness, an ability to give the world the cold shoulder, to win on the biggest stages. Michael Jordan had it. Tiger Woods did, too.
That’s not Stricker. Oh, he’s got some bulldog in him, to be sure. You don’t win 12 times on the PGA Tour and a pair of comeback player of the year awards without some grit. But don’t confuse grit for callousness.
Stricker, 50, of Madison, would be the guy next door, if the guy next door happened to be one of the best putters in the world and was playing in his 20th U.S. Open this week.
You won’t find a single player, even when prodded off the record, to say a mean-spirited word about him. And trust us, there aren’t a ton of successful players on the PGA Tour who are universally admired by their peers.
“There isn’t anything to not like,” said Jim Furyk. “He’s soft-spoken, he’s humble, he’s a loyal friend. What could you say that is not likeable about him?
“It’s sort of like when you talk about the best players in the world and what are their weaknesses. Well, they have no weaknesses. Steve’s personality is like that. There is nothing you could say bad about him.”
Stricker gets it. He’s not oblivious to the cries of “Go get ‘em, Strick!” that ring out from the gallery. He knows he’s admired, even beloved, by golf fans throughout Wisconsin. He feels the support, the encouragement, the love. Walk a couple holes with him and you’ll feel it, too.
Just don’t ask him why it’s that way.
“I don’t know,” he said Monday. “I have no idea. I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of nice things said about me in the press.”
He stopped and smiled
“Maybe I’ve got a lot of people snowed.”
‘You don’t snow people for 30 years’
No, that’s not it. You don’t snow people for 30 years.
“I was brought up in a small town,” Stricker said of Edgerton, population 5,513. “You had to watch what you did all the time kind of thing because everybody knew your business.”
Now he’s getting closer. Stricker grew up in a small, tidy house on Jenson St., just down the hill from unpretentious Towne Country Club, his home course. His parents weren’t rich; even as he excelled at the University of Illinois, he worked summers for his father, Bob, an electrician.
Nothing was handed to Stricker. He earned everything he got every step of the way, including a spot in the U.S. Open field this week. After the United States Golf Association denied his request for a special exemption, he went out and won a 36-hole sectional qualifier.
“I think this story, the reason why it’s a little bigger than normal for me is I was declined the invite and then I went to work and got in on my own,” he said. “I think that’s Wisconsin people in general. I think it’s that blue-collar Wisconsin mentality that people work hard here. That’s what I had to do to get in.”
The work ethic certainly is part of his appeal. Who isn’t impressed by the almost mythic tale of Stricker battling his way out of a career-threatening slump by beating balls out of a three-sided, heated trailer in the dead of Wisconsin winter?
But it’s more than that. It’s the way he treats people, whether they’re the top players in the world or the volunteers who park cars.
“He’s a Wisconsin boy,” said Scott Denis of Rhinelander, who was in Stricker’s gallery Monday. “I have a friend who was a standard bearer in his group at the John Deere Classic and he said Steve is one of the nicest guys out there.”
‘Wisconsin boy’ makes good
On his way to the first tee, Stricker made small talk with the two sheriff’s deputies assigned to walk with him, asking their names and where they lived. You can bet he’d remember, too.
“I just think he’s real, genuine,” said his wife, Nicki. “What you see is what you get. To him, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. It’s just having respect for another human.”
It’s a big week for the Strickers. Steve is playing in the first-ever U.S. Open in his home state. Nicki is on the bag. She toted his clubs hundreds of times when he was an amateur and a young professional and still signs up for caddie duty a couple times a year.
“I think the best way I can put it is she knows her place out on the golf course and I know my place when I go home,” Stricker said with a grin. “And those roles are flipped. So it’s all good. It’s nice to have her out here.”
In all likelihood, Stricker is not going to win the U.S. Open. He’s not going to win a major. And so what? There is no trophy big enough to trade for the life he’s led.