SOUTHPORT, England – There were times when Steve Stricker chose sunny, crisp Wisconsin Julys over ventures across the pond to play in golf’s most venerable major, the British Open.
No more. Now 50, Stricker savors his time at any major. It took an 11th-hour dash through Sectional Qualifying in Memphis for Stricker to advance to the very first U.S. Open contested in his home state this summer. Once there, he handled the assignment with aplomb, the home-state hero tying for 16th.
As for the Open at Birkdale? He’s had this one on the calendar for some time. He sealed his invite a year ago, finishing fourth at Royal Troon, his best showing in 14 Open starts. He has taken a liking to the links of Birkdale, one course on the Open rota upon which he has yet to compete.
“It’s really fair and there’s not a lot of rough in most spots,” said Stricker, who tied for fifth at the John Deere Classic on Sunday. “It’s pretty wispy. You can play out of it. Keep it out the fairway bunkers, right? But if you hit it well, you can play well. It depends on what is going to happen with the rain and wind (which arrived Wednesday afternoon), but I’m enjoying it.”
As he should. Stricker finally has been able to exhale after playing more golf than usual in trying to chase a spot into the U.S. Open. He eventually was the 36-hole medalist in the qualifier in Memphis, took a week off, then played back-to-back weeks near home – first at Erin Hills, and then in the American Family Insurance Championship, a fledgling PGA Tour Champions event that he helped to start in his hometown of Madison.
It was a busy, and emotional, run, and Stricker said the hangover from it even spilled into the first round of the Deere. He shot 2-over 73, making only a single birdie, and was in danger of missing the cut. But that’s when he found a spark.
“That was a little wakeup call, shooting a couple over there,” Stricker said. “I played really nicely the last three rounds. Caught on to a few things. It was good.”
How good? Stricker would shoot 65-64 on the weekend, climbing to T-5 and giving him nice momentum as he boarded the John Deere charter pointed toward England Sunday evening.
“I really had a chance of winning the tournament,” he said. “I had four holes to play and I was 16 under. At that point, I was thinking, if I could get two more, post 18 (under) – I was out so early – it could have been, and would have been, hard for him (eventual winner Bryson DeChambeau) to finish there.”
Stricker is an excellent putter, and has wondered through the years how much the slower greens of an Open venue neutralizes what should be his biggest strength. In his last few appearances, he seems to have figured something out. At Lytham in 2012, and at Troon a year ago, Stricker had the fewest putts of any 72-hole finisher.
“It’s an adjustment here,” said Stricker, who ranks 20th this season on Tour in strokes gained: putting. “You’ve got to lengthen your stroke. You have to make sure you give yourself enough of a backstroke to have momentum going forward. I haven’t been a great putter over here over the years, and I think it’s more so the wind. It’s hard for everybody. But I putted well last year at Troon, and hopefully that carries over to this week.”
The last time the Open visited Birkdale, Greg Norman, then 53, led the tournament into Sunday. Tom Watson lost in a playoff at Turnberry in 2009 at age 59. Fortysomethings Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson each won titles earlier this decade. Experience means something, and Stricker knows it.
“It’s not about how pretty it is,” he said. “It’s stay out of those bunkers, get it up and down when you have to, and play smart. I don’t really challenge those bunkers too often; some guys do. … Just keep moving forward.”
Yes, it’s nice back at home, but Stricker is pleased to be where he is this week, hoping to make a quality run at a first major at age 50.
“I don’t know how many majors I’ve got left in me,” he said, “so when I get into one, I want to take advantage of it.”