Presidents Cup a Sign of Strickers Turnaround

By Associated PressSeptember 25, 2007, 4:00 pm
MONTREAL -- At her last Presidents Cup, she carried a 40-pound bag and had sand kicked in her face.
It wasn't the finest moment in their marriage, but they can laugh about it now.
Steve Stricker was a rising American star, among the top 20 golfers in the world, playing in his first Presidents Cup with Arnold Palmer as the U.S. captain and wife Nicki as his caddie. He was partners with Corey Pavin in a fourball match when Stricker hit a terrible bunker shot and lost his temper.
'I turned around and took a big swipe at the sand,' Stricker said. 'And you know who's standing right there? Nicki. I blasted her with all the sand. Pavin to this day still asks me, 'Has Nicki got the sand out of her hair yet?''
That was 11 years ago.
'We felt so young, but we were young back then,' Nicki said. 'In hindsight, I didn't think that would be the last team he was on. I didn't think we'd never make it back.'
Nicki was on the practice range late Monday afternoon at Royal Montreal, standing behind her husband, as always. She is too busy as a mom to be a caddie, giving up the bag for good in 2001. She rarely has time to leave home for golf tournaments, but the Presidents Cup is a family affair and she wasn't about to miss this one.
It was hard to believe so much time has passed since Stricker wore a team uniform. Bob Dole was the Republican nominee for president. The national media left the Presidents Cup on the eve of the final round that year because 20-year-old Tiger Woods, in only his third tournament as a professional, was leading the Quad City Classic.
It was equally difficult to fathom how the Strickers ever got back.
The stories have been told for the last few months now about Stricker's resiliency in returning to where everyone figured he would be. How he failed to get through Q-school and had to beg for sponsor exemptions. How he spent the winter in Wisconsin in a modified mobile home hitting balls out to a snow-covered field with flags frozen into the cup.
Two weeks after making the Presidents Cup team, Stricker ended a 6 1/2 -year drought by winning The Barclays, sobbing at the thought of his wife and two daughters and their parents and their endless support.
Reminders of his remarkable comeback keep piling up.
On Monday, Stricker officially became part of the 'Big Four' when he moved percentage points ahead of Ernie Els at No. 4 in the world ranking. Tuesday morning, he assembled with captain Jack Nicklaus and 11 other Americans for the team photo.
'What a great, great story,' Nicklaus said. 'I'm thrilled for him.'
The solution was hard work, typical of any comeback story in golf.
It required an amazing amount of support from his wife, who knew his potential because she had been there with him in good times and bad. A good golfer when they were dating, Nicki listened as her husband debated a career change and concluded that he was meant to play golf.
'He did this by himself, but not on his own, if that makes any sense,' she said, alluding to the quiet support of those around him. 'He always had all the tools. He needed to dig it out of the dirt, or dig it out of the snow in his case.'
Nicki was the one who asked him out on their first date, although Stricker says there's more to that story. He recalls going to see Wisconsin golf coach Dennis Tiziani for the first time for help on his game, and as they walked by the pool at the club, he noticed a beautiful lifeguard in the chair.
'I said, 'Whoa, who's that girl?' And Tiz said, 'That's my daughter,'' Stricker said with a sheepish laugh. 'I was going to call her up, but figured I ought to wait a couple of days.'
Stricker wound up going to Illinois, but he continued to work with Tiziani until he turned pro, toiled on the smaller golf circuits, became his son-in-law, and established himself on the PGA TOUR with two victories in 1996 and a spot on the Presidents Cup team.
And the family bond grew stronger as his golf became weaker.
'He got himself into this problem, but here's the strength of it,' Tiziani said. 'He got himself out.'
It is not unusual for Stricker to figure things out on his own. Nicki says he can fix anything around the house, although he is not so stubborn that he won't ask for instruction. And of all his fine qualities, this might be the most foreign for a male.
'When we're driving somewhere, he'll stop and ask for directions,' she said.
There was no road map for a golfer who went from failing Q-school to No. 4 in the world in just under two years. The question now is where this journey will lead.
He shot 67 in the final round of the TOUR Championship, officially ending his 2007 season with $4.6 million in earnings and a $3 million retirement bonus for finishing second to Woods in the FedExCup.
The tears began to flow and the voice began to choke with emotion -- no surprise there -- but it was his caddie and longtime friend, Tom Mitchell, who broke down at East Lake as he reflected on how far they had come.
This time, it was Stricker who kept his cool.
'He wanted to hug me,' Stricker said. 'He's in my corner, he's fired up and I am, too. I feel like I should be doing this, and I want to do it. But I didn't want to get too fired up. I just told him, 'We've got bigger things to do yet.''
Related Links:
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  • Full Coverage - Presidents Cup
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    Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

    By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

    Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

    The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

    "The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

    He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

    Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

    Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

    “Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

    Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

    Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

    Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

    The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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    McIlroy gets back on track

    By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

    There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

    He is well ahead of schedule.

    Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

    “Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

    To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

    And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

    After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

    Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

    “I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

    The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

    The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

    But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

    Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

    Everything in his life is lined up.

    Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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    Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

    Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

    Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

    There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

    Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

    Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

    The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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    Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

    Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

    Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

    It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

    Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

    While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.