ERIN, Wis. – Steve Stricker’s greatest challenge this week may not necessarily be making birdies.
Not the way fellow Wisconsin resident Andy North sees it.
Stricker may be widely regarded as the nicest guy on the PGA Tour, but he didn’t work his butt off to make it into the first U.S. Open ever played in his home state just to say he participated.
Stricker’s big challenge at Erin Hills may be dealing with all the love being rained down on him as the state’s favorite son in golf, all the demands that are being put on him. Home games aren’t easy in this game.
“This is going to be a tough week for him,” said North, who won two U.S. Opens. “In talking to Steve, he's already said ‘I've had to say 'no' more this week than I probably ever have.’
“He's here to play in a golf tournament. He's not here to entertain people all week long. As long as he's able to do that, it's a golf course that sets up really well for him, even though it's a longer golf course, because he's such a good pitcher and chipper of the ball. He's a great putter, obviously, but he also drives the ball very straight.”
Stricker is a 12-time PGA Tour winner looking to win his first major. He turned 50 in February, and nobody wins majors in their 50s.
In the more than 100 years major championships have been staged, nobody has done it. Julius Boros is the oldest to win one, taking the PGA Championship at Pecan Valley at 48 years, 4 months and 18 days old. Hale Irwin’s the oldest to win a U.S. Open, taking it at Medinah at 45 years and 15 days old.
But don’t tell Stricker he’s got no chance this week.
“I'm looking to play well,” he said Tuesday. “That's the thing. I don't want to stop, by just qualifying, and being here ceremonial. I want to play well and hopefully get in there.”
Stricker is the second-oldest player in the field, behind 54-year-old Gene Sauers, but he takes good form into the 69th major championship start of his career. He tied for seventh at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial three weeks ago. He was a factor in The Open last year. He finished fourth at Royal Troon.
“I wasn't sure if I was going to be here this week, but very excited, relieved,” Stricker said. “Worked hard to get here. Put a lot of extra effort in playing some extra tournaments to try to get here.”
The closest Stricker has come to winning a major was in 1998, when he finished second to Vijay Singh at the PGA Championship. He has 13 top-10 finishes in majors, two fifth-place finishes in the U.S. Open.
Stricker was so intent on playing this week, he wrote the USGA asking for a special exemption, knowing his request was a long shot. After he was turned down, he resolved to play his way in, teeing it up last week in a U.S. Open qualifier in Memphis, where he won medalist honors with a 65 and 67.
Stricker said not being qualified for the U.S. Open as excitement began to build for Wisconsin’s historic event was difficult.
“I had more and more people come up to me and say, `Hey, why aren't you in?’ And pretty soon it became a little chip on my shoulder, that I had to work a little bit harder to try to get in,” Stricker said. “I still don't believe I should have got [an exemption]. I'm convinced of that, but it would have been nice if they would have. But the way it worked out, I feel much better the way I got here.
“I earned my way in. I feel like I belong here.”
Stricker grew up in Edgerton, about 60 miles southwest of Erin Hills. His wife, Nicki, will reprise the role she served early in her husband’s career. She will caddie for him this week. They live in Madison now, about an hour’s drive from Erin Hills, but they are renting a home near the course this week.
Nobody will be cheered more heartily around Erin Hills than Stricker, who has been getting ovations in his practice rounds.
“It's overwhelming at times, the amount of people that are coming up to me and wishing me luck,” Stricker said. “It's pretty cool. Hopefully, I can play well to make it worth it on everybody's part.”