ERIN, Wis. – Steve Stricker knew the 117th U.S. Open being played in his home state of Wisconsin would be something special. This special? Well, that’s something he never could have imagined.
There he was early Saturday afternoon, running off birdies on three of four holes late on the back nine, moving into red under-par numbers for the tournament. Even with a three-putt bogey at the behemoth par-5 18th, Stricker had a terrific day, one he could savor as he put his feet up at the home he rented from a buddy that sits on a lake 15 minutes from the golf course.
Make no bones, this is Stricker country, and the tens of thousands of fans who have come to walk the sprawling links-like track at Erin Hills have let him know that he belongs to them. He’s the boy who grew up across state at Edgerton Towne Country Club and Lake Ripley and now lives in Madison, about an hour’s drive away from this week’s center of the golf universe. When Stricker’s par putt missed at 18, why, judging by the groan, you’d have thought the Packers just lost on a last-second field goal at Lambeau.
“It’s been an unbelievable week – way beyond my expectations,” said Stricker. “I wanted to play. First U.S. Open in the state of Wisconsin, and I wanted to be here.”
His 69 left him at 2-under 214 for the championship, no small accomplishment for a 50-year-old who is taking on a very big ballpark this week. When he walked off the golf course, Stricker was ranked 55th in driving distance (296.8 yards) among the 68 competitors who made it to the weekend.
But this week is about more than any numbers for Stricker, who’d written to, and been turned down by, the U.S. Golf Association when asking for a special exemption. He knew he didn’t have a chance. Instead, he went to Memphis, Tenn., and earned his way in via Sectional Qualifying, shooting 67-65 to lead all 108 players qualifying at the site.
In earning his way, Stricker, the son of an electrician, saw an instant connection to where he was raised.
“I think that’s Wisconsin people in general,” he said. “It’s that blue-collar Wisconsin mentality that people work hard around here. And that’s what I had to do to get in.”
It’s been a huge week for the family. Oldest daughter Bobbi Maria played in her first Wisconsin Women’s Open this week, and youngest daughter Izzy was playing a match at their home club. Nicki is on the bag, just as she was when Steve was setting out as a professional.
Stricker said that he and his wife both fell asleep on the 10th tee, thinking they weren’t on the back tee when they were. But that’s but a blip in a week the two have shared that neither ever will forget.
“Anywhere that he makes birdie has been pretty loud, and pretty cool,” Nicki said.
The support has been incredible, with Stricker getting standing ovations upon finishing his rounds on the ninth and 18th greens. One radio interviewer told the mild-mannered Stricker, “You’re Phil Mickelson this week.” If Stricker’s daughters didn’t quite realize what a legend their dad is here, they certainly do now.
“I’ve been feeding off them all week,” he said of the crowds. “I really haven’t felt the pressure like I used to in the early days when I used to come and play in Wisconsin. I feel way more relaxed. I feel like I don’t have anything to prove anymore.”
He doesn’t. He’s won 12 times on the PGA Tour, and played on Presidents Cup teams and Ryder Cup teams. This fall, he will captain the U.S. in the Presidents Cup, and three years from now, he’s the favorite to captain the U.S. when the Ryder Cup lands in Wisconsin at Whistling Straits.
He’s not surprised that he’s somewhere in the mix here, because Stricker believes in himself, having pulled his career from the ashes years ago to play better than he ever had before. You don’t get named the PGA Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year not once, but twice, without having a little grit and a big heart.
With his media obligations completed, and now seated in a cart on his way to grab some late lunch, Stricker did admit to one anxious moment from his week. It happened Thursday, before he ever got a ball in the air. The strength and love packed into the ovation he got when he stepped to the par-5 first tee on Thursday truly moved him emotionally. It was all he could do to pull the club back and make contact.
“Goose bumps, chills,” he said. “I thought, ‘Geez, let’s hit a good one.’ That one … it was a bit of a challenge.”
So was getting here to his home-state U.S. Open. But he earned it in true blue-collar, lunch-pail-toting Wisconsin fashion, and for that, he has been rewarded richly. He won’t ever forget it.