Steve Stricker doesn’t tell the story about how he first met his wife Nicki very often. It’s because 25 years later, telling the story still makes him blush.
He was sitting on a golf cart one summer afternoon after a session with Dennis Tiziani, who has been his coach since he was a teen. As he and Tiziani were deep in discussion on the art of the golf swing, a young woman walked past them on her way to go play golf.
“I looked up and saw her and kind of elbowed Tiz,” Stricker will say when he is coaxed into telling the story. “I said, ‘Hey, take a look at her. Do you know her?’
“He said, ‘Sure do. That’s my daughter, Nicki.’”
This is the part where Stricker smiles and turns a little red even though he and Nicki are now married, have two children, and he and Tiziani are player-coach, son-in-law and father-in-law and very close friends.
“That’s just Steve,” Nicki Stricker likes to say – something a lot of people say about her husband. “The part of the story he doesn’t tell is that he was so shy I had to ask him out the first time.”
Yup, that’s Steve.
The word unique is one of the most overused in sports lingo in large part because much like the word ultimate – which doesn’t mean greatest, but final – it is a word many who use it don’t understand. Unique means one of a kind. Very few people and very few stories are truly unique.
Stricker and his story are unique.
He arrived on the PGA Tour fulltime in 1994 with a sweet putting stroke that people noticed immediately and a no-nonsense caddie who understood his golf swing and his demeanor better than anyone. That would be Nicki, who quickly won the respect of the other caddies with her understanding of the game, of caddie etiquette and of her player.
For three years Steve and Nicki were a love story and a success story. Stricker won twice in 1996, made the Presidents Cup team and seemed destined for a long run as a top player on Tour.
Then he did what a lot of players do: he signed a contract for a lot of money that involved an equipment change. In 1997, he couldn’t – as players often say – play dead. He went home early that fall to re-tool his swing and his mind. He had a comeback year in 1998 even though he still struggled with the driver and with the fact that Nicki was no longer on the bag. She was pregnant.
When he nearly won the PGA Championship at Sahalee that summer, Nicki was home in Wisconsin with the baby due any minute. Every time Steve started to talk about her absence that weekend his eyes clouded and his throat constricted. Everyone understood. It was just Steve being Steve.
The next few years were a roller-coaster ride: up to the top with a victory at the 2001 Accenture Match Play; into the Abyss with three straight years out of the top 150 on the money list and a crash that landed him back at the second stage of Q-School at the end of 2005.
He managed to survive but didn’t make it through the finals. By then there were two children at home and Stricker wasn’t sure he wanted to play golf for a living anymore. It wasn’t fun missing fairways all day, every day and spending your life scrambling to make pars and cuts.
“To be honest, I did think about it,” he said. “But in the end there wasn’t anything else I really wanted to do at that point in my life. The idea of staying home sounded nice but I thought I’d give it one more try.”
The story of that winter has been oft-told. He asked Tiziani to come in and take his swing back to square one. The Strickers are Wisconsin people, Midwesterners. They like winter. They owned a home in Florida once but gave it up. So, Stricker and Tiziani worked out of a heated trailer that winter, Stricker pounding balls, Tiziani talking, Stricker pounding some more balls.
Somewhere, things began to click. Stricker finished third at Houston that April playing on a sponsor exemption – the kind that good guys get even when their career is in free fall. Then he finished sixth at the U.S. Open and tied for second at the Kemper Open. Q-School was in the rearview mirror. He was voted Comeback Player of the Year. A year later he won for the first time since 2001 in the first FedEx Cup playoff event ever, at Westchester. He was voted Comeback Player of the Year again.
“After that Tiger (Woods) said to me in the locker room one day, ‘You realize you’ve set a record that no one, including me, will ever match,’” Stricker said, laughing. “I guess you have to fall a long way to be Comeback Player of the Year twice.”
He isn’t going to win it again. He’s now won seven times since those winter sessions and been as high as No. 2 in the world. He’s been the one guy who can consistently handle playing with Woods in The Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. The only thing missing from his resume is a major and Stricker, being Stricker, readily admits he would like to win one. None of the Colin Montgomerie, “I’ll have had a great career without a major,” rationales.
“I know the window is closing,” he said after his victory Sunday at the Memorial. “I’ve been close a couple of times and I would really like to get one before I’m done. It would mean a lot to me.”
Chances are pretty good if he does win a major the 18th green will be awash in tears. Some will come from Stricker. But they’ll come from others, too, people who have watched his unique career for a long time and who know that when he re-tells the story about winning that major and crying afterward, he’ll turn bright red with embarrassment.
There will be nothing to be embarrassed about though, that’s for certain. It will be just Steve being Steve.
Stricker one of a kind
Steve Stricker doesn’t tell the story about how he first met his wife Nicki very often. It’s because 25 years later, telling the story still makes him blush.
Copycat: Honda's 17th teeters on edge of good taste
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The Honda Classic won’t pack as many fans around its party hole this week as the Phoenix Open does, but there is something more intensely intimate about PGA National’s stadium setup.
Players feel like the spectators in the bleachers at the tee box at Honda’s 17th hole are right on top of them.
“If the wind’s wrong at the 17th tee, you can get a vodka cranberry splashed on you,” Graeme McDowell cracked. “They are that close.”
Plus, the 17th at the Champion Course is a more difficult shot than the one players face at Scottsdale's 16th.
It’s a 162-yard tee shot at the Phoenix Open with no water in sight.
It’s a 190-yard tee shot at the Honda Classic, to a small, kidney-shaped green, with water guarding the front and right side of the green and a bunker strategically pinched into the back-center. Plus, it’s a shot that typically must be played through South Florida’s brisk winter winds.
“I’ve hit 3- and 4-irons in there,” McDowell said. “It’s a proper golf hole.”
It’s a shot that can decide who wins late on a Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.
Factor in the intensely intimate nature of that hole, with fans partaking in libations at the Gosling Bear Trap pavilion behind the 17th tee and the Cobra Puma Village behind the 17th green, and the degree of difficulty there makes it one of the most difficult par 3s on the PGA Tour. It ranked as the 21st most difficult par 3 on the PGA Tour last year with a 3.20 scoring average. Scottsdale's 16th ranked 160th at 2.98.
That’s a fairly large reason why pros teeing it up at the Honda Classic don’t want to see the Phoenix-like lunacy spill over here the way it threatened to last year.
That possibility concerns players increasingly agitated by the growing unruliness at tour events outside Phoenix. Rory McIlroy said the craziness that followed his pairing with Tiger Woods in Los Angeles last week left him wanting a “couple Advil.” Justin Thomas, also in that grouping, said it “got a little out of hand.”
So players will be on alert arriving at the Honda Classic’s 17th hole this week.
A year ago, Billy Horschel complained to PGA Tour officials about the heckling Sergio Garcia and other players received there.
Horschel told GolfChannel.com last year that he worried the Honda Classic might lose some of its appeal to players if unruly fan behavior grew worse at the party hole, but he said beefed up security helped on the weekend. Horschel is back this year, and so is Garcia, good signs for Honda as it walks the fine line between promoting a good party and a good golf tournament.
“I embrace any good sporting atmosphere as long as it stays respectful,” Ian Poulter said. “At times, the line has been crossed out here on Tour. People just need to be sensible. I am not cool with being abused.
“Whenever you mix alcohol with a group of fans all day, then Dutch courage kicks in at some stage.”
Bottom line, Poulter likes the extra excitement fans can create, not the insults some can hurl.
“I am all up for loud crowds,” he said. “A bit of jeering and fun is great, but just keep it respectful. It’s a shame it goes over the line sometimes. It needs to be managed.”
Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly oversees that tough job. In 12 years leading the event, he has built the tournament into something special. The attendance has boomed from an estimated 65,000 his first year at the helm to more than 200,000 last year.
With Tiger Woods committed to play this year, Kennerly is hopeful the tournament sets an attendance record. The arrival of Woods, however, heightens the challenges.
Woods is going off with the late pairings on Friday, meaning he will arrive at Honda’s party hole late in the day, when the party’s fully percolating.
Kennerly is expecting 17,000 fans to pack that stadium-like atmosphere on the event’s busiest days.
Kennerly is also expecting the best from South Florida fans.
“We have a zero tolerance policy,” Kennerly said. “We have more police officers there, security and more marshals.
“We don’t want to be nasty and throw people out, but we want them to be respectful to players. We also want it to continue to be a fun place for people to hang out, because we aren’t getting 200,000 people here just to watch golf.”
Kennerly said unruly fans will be ejected.
“But we think people will be respectful, and I expect when Tiger and the superstars come through there, they aren’t going to have an issue,” Kennerly said.
McDowell believes Kennerly has the right balance working, and he expects to see that again this week.
“They’ve really taken this event up a couple notches the last five or 10 years with the job they’ve done, especially with what they’ve done at the 16th and 17th holes,” McDowell said. “I’ve been here a lot, and I don’t think it’s gotten to the Phoenix level yet.”
The real test of that may come Friday when Woods makes his way through there at the end of the day.
Door officially open for Woods to be playing vice captain
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thirteen months ago, when Jim Furyk was named the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, one of the biggest questions was what would happen if Furyk were to play his way onto his own team.
It wasn’t that unrealistic.
At the time, Furyk was 46 and coming off a season in which he tied for second at the U.S. Open and shot 58 in a PGA Tour event. If anything, accepting the Ryder Cup captaincy seemed premature.
Now, he’s slowly recovering from shoulder surgery that knocked him out of action for six months. He’s ranked 230th in the world. He’s planning to play an 18-event schedule, on past champion status, mostly to be visible and available to prospective team members.
A playing captain? Furyk chuckled at the thought.
“Wow,” he said here at PGA of America headquarters, “that would be crazy-difficult.”
That’s important to remember when assessing Tiger Woods’ chances of becoming a playing vice captain.
On Tuesday, Woods was named an assistant for the matches at Le Golf National, signing up for months of group texts and a week in which he'd sport an earpiece, scribble potential pairings on a sheet of paper and fetch anything Team USA needs.
It’s become an increasingly familiar role for Woods, except this appointment isn’t anything like his vice captaincy at Hazeltine in 2016 or last year’s Presidents Cup.
Unlike the past few years, when his competitive future was in doubt because of debilitating back pain, there’s at least a chance now that Woods can qualify for the team on his own, or deserve consideration as a captain’s pick.
There’s a long way to go, of course. He’s 104th in the points standings. He’s made only two official starts since August 2015. His driving needs a lot of work. He hasn’t threatened serious contention, and he might not for a while. But, again: Come September, it’s possible.
And so here was Woods’ taped message Tuesday: “My goal is to make the team, but whatever happens over the course of this season, I will continue to do whatever I can to help us keep the cup.”
That follows what Woods told reporters last week at Riviera, when he expressed a desire to be a playing vice captain.
“Why can’t I have both?” he said. “I like both.”
Furyk, eventually, will have five assistants in Paris, and he could have waited to see how Woods fared this year before assigning him an official role.
He opted against that. Woods is too valuable of an asset.
“I want him on-board right now,” Furyk said.
Arnold Palmer was the last to serve as both player and captain for a Ryder Cup – in 1963. Nothing about the Ryder Cup bears any resemblance to those matches, other than there’s still a winner and a loser. There is more responsibility now. More planning. More strategy. More pressure.
For the past two team competitions, the Americans have split into four-man pods that practiced together under the supervision of one of the assistants. That assistant then relayed any pertinent information to the captain, who made the final decision.
The assistants are relied upon even more once the matches begin. Furyk will need to be on the first tee for at least the first hour of the matches, welcoming all of the participants and doing interviews for the event’s many TV partners, and he needs an assistant with each of the matches out on the course. They’re the captain’s eyes and ears.
Furyk would need to weigh whether Woods’ potential impact as a vice captain – by all accounts he’s the best Xs-and-Os specialist – is worth more than the few points he could earn on the course. Could he adequately handle both tasks? Would dividing his attention actually be detrimental to the team?
“That would be a bridge we cross when we got there,” Furyk said.
If Woods plays well enough, then it’s hard to imagine him being left off the roster, even with all of the attendant challenges of the dual role.
“It’s possible,” Furyk said, “but whether that’s the best thing for the team, we’ll see.”
It’s only February, and this comeback is still new. As Furyk himself knows, a lot can change over the course of a year.
Furyk tabs Woods, Stricker as Ryder Cup vice captains
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk has added Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker to his stable of vice captains to aid in his quest to win on foreign soil for the first time in 25 years.
Furyk made the announcement Tuesday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., site of this week's Honda Classic. He had previously named Davis Love III as his first vice captain, with a fourth expected to be named before the biennial matches kick off in France this September.
The addition of Woods and Stricker means that the team room will have a familiar feel from two years ago, when Love was the U.S. captain and Furyk, Woods, Stricker and Tom Lehman served as assistants.
This will be the third time as vice captain for Stricker, who last year guided the U.S. to victory as Presidents Cup captain. After compiling a 3-7-1 individual record as a Ryder Cup player from 2008-12, Stricker served as an assistant to Tom Watson at Gleneagles in 2014 before donning an earpiece two years ago on Love's squad at Hazeltine.
"This is a great honor for me, and I am once again thrilled to be a vice captain,” Stricker said in a statement. “We plan to keep the momentum and the spirit of Hazeltine alive and channel it to our advantage in Paris."
Woods will make his second appearance as a vice captain, having served in 2016 and also on Stricker's Presidents Cup team last year. Woods played on seven Ryder Cup teams from 1997-2012, and last week at the Genesis Open he told reporters he would be open to a dual role as both an assistant and a playing member this fall.
"I am thrilled to once again serve as a Ryder Cup vice captain and I thank Jim for his confidence, friendship and support," Woods said in a statement. "My goal is to make the team, but whatever happens over the course of this season, I will continue to do what I can to help us keep the cup."
The Ryder Cup will be held Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National in Paris. The U.S. has not won in Europe since 1993 at The Belfry in England.
Watch: Guy wins $75K boat, $25K cash with 120-foot putt
Making a 120-foot putt in front of a crowd of screaming people would be an award in and of itself for most golfers out there, but one lucky Minnesota man recently got a little something extra for his effort.
The Minnesota Golf Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center has held a $100,000 putting contest for 28 years, and on Sunday, Paul Shadle, a 49-year-old pilot from Rosemount, Minnesota, became the first person ever to sink the putt, winning a pontoon boat valued at $75,000 and $25,000 cash in the process.
But that's not the whole story. Shadle, who describes himself as a "weekend golfer," made separate 100-foot and 50-foot putts to qualify for an attempt at the $100K grand prize – in case you were wondering how it's possible no one had ever made the putt before.
"Closed my eyes and hoped for the best," Shadle said of the attempt(s).
Hard to argue with the result.