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Stricker one of a kind

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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.