NAPLES, Fla. – These are terrific times for Steve Stricker.
As a PGA Tour pro, he’s climbing to thrilling heights he’s never known before.
At 42, his game’s never been better.
These are sad times, too.
Stricker has forged a friendship with Tiger Woods over the past few years, a bond that prompted Woods to ask for Stricker as his partner at the Presidents Cup two months ago, where they were an unbeatable team. The controversial news reports that have sent Woods into a freefall the last two weeks have hit Stricker hard. Though his friendship with Woods is limited to their times together at PGA Tour events, he has struggled with the picture of Woods that has emerged.
Stricker, though, is showing no signs of letting anything cool off his game this winter. He and fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Kelly seized the lead Saturday going into the final round of the Shark Shootout at Tiburon Golf Club.
With his dominant performance at the Presidents Cup in October, his victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, Stricker finished the ’09 season strong. His three PGA Tour titles this year helped him climb to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Senior writer Randall Mell caught up with Stricker at the Shark Shootout to talk about his big year and how the Woods’ fallout has affected him:
What was your reaction when Tiger announced Friday night that he was taking an “indefinite break” from professional golf?
My first reaction was that it was a good decision. For him to get his family life in order, and work out all those things that have happened, is what he needs to do. My hats off to him. Golf is always going to be here and hopefully he gets his life straight at home and comes back. Because we need him back here as well. We all know what he does for excitement levels, purse levels, TV audiences. It all goes up when he’s here, so we need him here, too. It shows he has his priorities, hopefully, in order and gets that taken care of and gets back out here.
How have all these wild reports about Tiger over the last two weeks affected you?
When it first came out, at first, I was pretty scared for him, seeing he was seriously injured. As it turns out, all the things that have happened since, it’s been a bit of a downer for me. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just made some bad decisions, and, hopefully, he can get it straight. I’m his friend, and I’m going to continue to be his friend. I just hope he gets it straight and can save that marriage and his family life because it’s very important. It was a bit of a shock to the system, but I wish him the best, and I am going to be there for him no matter what.
Nothing seems to be slowing you down this off season. You and Jerry Kelly are making a strong run at the Shark Shootout. Jerry’s a good friend of yours, but people think of you two as the odd couple because you have such different personalities. He’s fiery and you’re so calm. Are you the odd couple here at Tiburon this weekend?
I guess on the course we may be a little bit of an odd couple, just because he shows his emotions a little more than I do, but we are both very competitive. We are both family guys. Jerry is one of the best family guys I know. He really takes care of his family, and he loves to be around them. I’m the same way. In that respect, we are the same way.
We know you like to spend this time of year deer hunting. Are you having as good a year with a bow in hand as you have had with a golf club in hand?
Not too many highlights in my hunting season this year. I still haven’t shot a buck yet. It’s been a strange year up there [in Wisconsin ]. The corn stayed up all the way through December. They just took it down by the farm I hunt. The corn created a place for all the deer to go into. We didn’t see a lot of deer because they were hiding in the corn. The next couple weeks, hopefully, we’ll get one.
No trophies? Does that make hunting any less fun? Or do you still relish the time away in the woods to re-charge your batteries for next year?
I enjoy just going out. I don’t have to shoot anything, just having a good time. There’s a strategy involved. You try to get close to these animals. I bow hunt. That’s pretty much all I do. For me, I have to get within 30 yards to have a shot. So you’re learning their patterns, what they do, and you’re trying to set up and get close to them.
Do you still hone your swing hitting balls into the snow from out of that heated trailer at Cherokee Country Club in Madison?
Before going out to Tiger’s event last week, I spent a week in there each day, just getting back at it. We didn’t have any snow yet, but we just got snow a couple days ago. It’s a good place for me to go and practice and get ready to play.
How does the confidence gained this year factor into what’s possible for you next season?
My confidence is obviously very good. I had a great year, winning three times, being paired with Tiger and playing well with him and holding up my end of the deal at the Presidents Cup and being part of that winning team. It all adds to a player’s confidence level. I’m very excited about this year. I feel like my swing is still good and where it needs to be. I’ve been hitting some good shots the last couple weeks, so I’m excited about getting going next year.
You were strong under pressure in big season-ending events, winning the Deutsche Bank Championship during the FedEx Cup playoffs and at the Presidents Cup. How does that bode for you in a bid to win your first major championship?
I had a couple good majors last year, too. I had a good Masters. I’ve had some good majors. I’ve had a couple opportunities to win in them. I’d love to get back in there again. I feel like my game has gotten a little stronger each year and my confidence level is getting a little bit stronger each year. You just have to get yourself in those positions in majors and see if you can do that. Hopefully, I can do that this next year.
Is winning a major a larger goal for you this year or is that something you feel like you just have to allow to happen?
I try not to put too much emphasis on having to play well in the majors. They are tough enough as it is. There are a lot of nerves to handle, conditions are usually a little different than what we play in normal PGA Tour events. It’s something I just try to let happen, and if I play well, hopefully, try to take advantage.
What effect will the new rules governing grooves have on your equipment next season?
It only affects my wedges. My irons are conforming, the ones I have been playing the last four years. I don’t think I’ll be changing those. Basically, I am playing two new [Titleist] sand wedges with conforming grooves. There’s a little bit of a difference. I am not quite used to them yet. The chipping is a little different. The ball comes off a little bit faster with a little less spin, probably. It’s something I am going to have to continue to work on. Everybody is going to have to work on it, too. It’s not a huge difference, but enough to make a difference.
You are known for your strong wedge play. Do you think the new grooves’ rules will benefit players with strong wedge games?
I think so. I don’t feel like I am going to be at a disadvantage. Everyone is in the same boat, whereas before some guys could put some higher-spinning clubs in play. I knew guys who had more aggressive grooves than other guys – still within legal limits – but some would spin more than others. Now everyone is on the same page. So I have full confidence in my ability to learn a few different shots and maybe do a little more with loft than spin. But I was never a guy who spun the ball anyway. So I don’t feel like it’s a huge change for me.