Babineau: Stricker continues to get better with age

Steve Stricker reacts to winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course on Jan. 9, 2012 in Kapalua, Hawaii.

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It was four years ago that Steve Stricker and his wife, Nicki, were driving on Oahu during Monday of Sony Open week when a friend from home phoned Nicki with some interesting news. Steve Stricker, coming off a runner-up finish at the Mercedes-Benz Championships at Kapalua, had climbed to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

That’s right. At the time it was Tiger, Phil . . . and Wisconsin’s favorite son, Steve Stricker.

Nicki said goodbye to her friend, hung up the phone, then looked playfully at her husband, who drove along innocently, not aware of the conversation topic.

“You are so overrated,” she told him.

Nicki laughed when the story was recounted late Monday afternoon on Maui. Her husband was holding the silver Hyundai Tournament of Champions trophy, his eighth victory in his last 50 PGA Tour starts. Suffice to say, as the top-ranked American in the game today (he’s ranked sixth overall despite turning 45 next month), Steve Stricker seems to be quite a bit more comfortable with his standing in the world golf order these days.

Though Stricker began Monday with a five-shot cushion at the breezy Plantation Course, victory would not arrive easily. In fact, a less-experienced, less-seasoned player struggling as Stricker was to knock down putts through early parts of his final round might even have left a ‘W’ behind on such a day.

“He’s comfortable with the things he’s done, and where he’s at, and it shows with how he plays,” said Nicki Stricker, who stood behind the 18th green with daughters Bobbi and Izzi, the young girls already busily planning their return to Kapalua to start 2013.

Stricker basically has had three careers: He was the young, long-bashing phenom in the mid-to-late 1990s who won early and was going to conquer the world; the deflated, struggling player who lacked confidence and couldn’t drive it straight from late 2001 into 2006, when he posted one top 10 in 100 starts; and finally, the seasoned fortysomething veteran who, since mid-2009, has won eight times (in 50 starts) and is as consistent and steely tough as anyone in the game today.

Monday’s five-shot lead evaporated pretty quickly into the Maui mist, and still Stricker stayed positive, even after he three-putted the par-5 fifth and bogeyed the par-4 sixth to let a handful of guys back in. He was striking the ball fine but couldn’t get putts to drop – usually the strength of his game – but nonetheless kept all thoughts positive as he headed down the seventh fairway, his lead narrowed to a shot.

“I kept telling myself good things, even though I stood on the back of the sixth green beating myself up,” he said. “I still tried to flip it around and tell myself, 'It’s OK. We’re still leading,' and 'Let’s go and make a couple of birdies.' It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it, especially when it works out in the end.”

Stricker shot 69 Monday, his fourth round in the 60s, and won by three. Martin Laird, the tall Scot who closed with 6-under 67 and made a nice run, finished alone in second at 20 under. Laird had played with Stricker when he tore it up with a 10-under 63 in Round 2 and certainly doesn’t underestimate the American's vast talents.

“I've said it a few times: I think he’s probably the most underrated player in the world,” Laird said. “People over here know how good he is, but especially when you go back to Europe, when I go back to Scotland or whatever. Everyone knows he's a good player, but I don't think they realize just how good he is. . . . He's won more than anyone since 2009, so you could argue he's been the best player in the world for that spell. And every year, even when he's not winning, he's always up there.”

It hasn’t always been easy, so Stricker certainly appreciates what he has accomplished and takes little for granted. Months ago, he experienced pain in his left arm and shoulder, and was losing power in his swing. His status for the Presidents Cup in November was in doubt, and the daunting thought of surgery even was considered. But with steady therapy and the assistance of two cortisone shots – the second one delivered Christmas week – Stricker gritted it out. He even goes so far to say he feels pretty good.

Since revamping his swing beginning in 2005, Stricker has become a steady ballstriker, and his wedge game and putting are second to few, if any at all. Stricker led the Tour in birdie average in 2011, was second (to Luke Donald) in the all-import strokes-gained-putting category, and was third in scoring average (69.36). His game can be about as flashy as he appears to be himself at times, which isn’t very. On a tour filled with brightly colored pastels, wild hair and loud belts, Stricker seems quite content to sport the reserved plain white shirt and khaki pants he wore Monday.

A day earlier, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said there’s not a player on Tour whom he enjoys watching more than . . . Steve Stricker? That’s right. Pressed later to explain why, Finchem said, “His game is simple to watch, easy.”

Then Finchem grinned. “If you analyze me,” he said, “I’m pretty biased, because Steve Stricker is one of the greatest people. Ever.”

That he is. On Monday, one of the good guys prevailed when Steve Stricker hoisted the trophy. He’s humble and polite, has time for fans and says and does all the right things. There were 11 players eligible to play this week at Kapalua who didn’t show, but Stricker wouldn’t miss this event for anything. (Well, except maybe for deer season.)

He’s one of those people, like a Ben Crenshaw or Nancy Lopez, who can break into tears at a hometown supermarket opening. On an interview with Golf Channel’s Mark Rolfing that aired on Christmas, Stricker’s voice cracked when he talked about his family and the man he wants to be. He said golf results don’t define him, and that he’s far more concerned with being a good husband and father than being a Tour champion. Luckily, he can do it all. And living in Madison, Wis., and pounding golf balls into the snow and ice from a heated, three-sided trailer all winter long is just fine with him.

In his makeshift trailer, there are mirrors that Stricker frequently uses to check his backswing. Truth be told, when he looks into any mirror, he should be proud of what he sees.

“In anything – golf, business, whatever – you need to have that confidence to do well, and he’s just doing what he does well out there,” Nicki Stricker said. “He's learned he doesn’t have to do things on a golf course that are out of his comfort zone. He finds the things that work for him.”

These days, that's a stirring recipe for success. One start in 2012, one trophy, and now it’s on to the Sony Open before Stricker takes four weeks off to hunt and take in some Wisconsin basketball games and just chill out with his family. All the stuff he really loves to do.

Stricker says he can’t wait.

Overrated? Not in the least. These days, even Nicki Stricker would agree.

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