SOUTH BEND – Making the 240-mile drive around Lake Michigan with his wife on Monday night, Steve Stricker had plenty of time to think.
Stricker, 52, was able to flush the disappointment of losing a three-way playoff in a PGA Tour Champions event in his hometown of Madison, Wis. He was able to process the 8-foot birdie putt that wouldn’t drop on the final hole of regulation last Sunday and prepare himself mentally for his first U.S. Senior Open.
Consider that four-hour car ride time well spent.
Early Sunday evening at Warren Golf Course, Stricker put the finishing touches on one of the most dominant wire-to-wire performances in recent tour history. Stricker, with wife Nicki once again handling caddie chores, entered the final day with a six-shot lead and removed all suspense with a final-round 69 to win the 40th Senior Open by six strokes over Jerry Kelly and defending champion David Toms.
“Obviously it stung but I think he still had his sights set here as well,” said Nicki Stricker, who had taken a long hiatus from caddying after the birth of the couple’s two daughters. “If he does go ahead and win there, does he come here with the same (outlook)? I think it stung enough that he was on a mission this week more so than he would have been.”
Nicki Stricker, with whom Steve will celebrate the couple’s 26th wedding anniversary in a few weeks, felt extra motivation as well after giving a misread on that putt at No. 18 in Madison.
“I’ve never been put in that position before,” she said. “He’s not ever asked me for his help, so yeah, I did take that hard because I was wrong.”
Stricker’s response this weekend included a string of 57 holes without a bogey, a remarkable run that started after a 5 on the par-4 sixth hole on Thursday and ended at Sunday’s 10th hole. The previous record at a U.S. Senior Open was 43 bogey-free holes by D.A. Weibring in 2004.
The closest Kelly, Stricker’s longtime friend and fellow Wisconsonite, got all day was five shots after a two-shot swing at the 10th. Stricker later chipped in from just off the front of the green (46 feet) at the 12th to quell any uprising.
“That chip-in at 12 was huge,” Stricker said. “Nicki and I had been talking about how we’d been looking for a chip-in. Right before I said, ‘I’m still looking for that chip-in.’ She said, ‘I am too.’ Maybe the power of us both thinking that made it come true.”
Stricker fell one shot shy of matching Fred Funk’s event record for most shots under par, set a decade ago at Carmel’s Crooked Stick Golf Club.
Spending the past two weeks in his native Midwest gave Stricker, a former University of Illinois All-American, a chance to settle into a warm cocoon of metronomic consistency.
“It’s an area that I grew up playing in,” he said. “Maybe not particularly right here, but in the Midwest. I’m playing on the same type of grass that I always played on growing up as a kid and then in college, so there’s a definite comfort level that I enjoy being here.”
For four straight days, Stricker made quick work of Warren’s bent-grass fairways and greens while staying far from the fescue rough, grown out to 3½ inches in some places. He hit 44 of 54 greens through the first three rounds and put his game on cruise control after opening his Sunday with a birdie at the par-4 first hole.
From there, it was essentially a given that Stricker would hoist the Francis D. Ouimet Memorial Trophy. He did so with his wife and their two daughters, 20-year-old Bobbi and Izzy, 13, by his side.
Following in the footsteps of her mother, who finished fourth at the 1991 Big Ten Championship, Bobbi is a rising redshirt junior on the Wisconsin golf team. Dennis Tiziani spent more than a quarter century (1977-2003) coaching men’s and women’s golf for the Badgers.
“Super cool,” Bobbi said. “My hands are shaking.”
She paused to gather herself.
“I was just saying to a friend of my mom’s, ‘I’m so happy that they get to experience it together,’” Bobbi Stricker added. “I know how much it means to them and how hard they both work. She got called in on that last putt (in Madison) and she was kicking herself because she felt like it was her fault.”
Nicki Stricker said her husband asked for her help on just one putt this week. That came on Saturday, as he was blowing the tournament wide open.
He missed, she recalled, but it didn’t matter.
Named in February as U.S. captain for the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in his beloved Wisconsin, Stricker is still bouncing back and forth between tours as he and Nicki prepare for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There hasn’t been a playing captain for the U.S. at the Ryder Cup since Arnold Palmer in 1963, but Stricker’s showing this week – and in a six-shot blowout at the Regions Tradition major last month outside Birmingham, Ala. – at least raises the possibility.
“I still enjoy playing on the regular tour, and I enjoy competing out here as well,” Stricker said. “I’ve been still bouncing back and forth. Being the captain, I feel like I need to continue to be out there, see the guys. I’ve played with a few this year that potentially could be on the team, guys that I don’t know as well as some of the older players. I feel like that’s important.”
It was Stricker’s fifth win in 20 career starts on the Champions tour. A 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, he also has 16 career second-place finishes and 10 thirds at the game’s highest level.
He ranks 15th in combined career tour earnings with more than $44 million but said this week’s win ranks at the top of his career achievements.
“I had some good U.S. Open finishes, but this is it,” he said. “Anytime you can win a USGA event, it’s a great feeling. This one here is probably the top. It’s a very special day.”
He pumped his fist when someone reminded him this week’s win earned him a spot in the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
“Oh, that’s right, I get in the regular U.S. Open too,” he said. “Sweet, no more qualifying.”