Sometimes, it’s about the fight inside you.
When Steve Stricker makes the long drive through Northern Wisconsin to one of his favorite hunting grounds in the Upper Peninsula, the conversations with his coach and father-in-law can veer wonderfully into philosophical reaches like that.
Dennis Tiziani sees terrific qualities in his son-in-law.
Tiziani sees a gentle soul, a doting father and husband who isn’t afraid to cry talking about things that matter most to him.
He sees a terrific fighting spirit.
He saw it again Monday with Stricker knocking Tiger Woods off his perch atop the FedEx Cup playoff standings with his victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston.
Tiziani will tell you that Stricker is atop the playoff points list today because in taking so many punches in his career he has learned how to throw them.
They’ve talked about that in their long drives away from their homes in Madison, Wis., to their favorite hunting haunts.
“You have to get in a fight and take some hard punches to know what the fight is all about,” Tiziani said. “To learn how to win a fight, you have to get in them. You have to know how to take a punch and how to give one. Steve’s learned that. He’s learned to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Stricker, 42, had those hard times four, five and six years ago, when he couldn’t keep his PGA Tour card. Though he rebuilt his game and twice won PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year honors, he still needed work honing his fighting skills.
Earlier this year, Stricker blew chances to win the Bob Hope Classic in January and the Northern Trust Open in February. Tour brethren liked him, but there were whispers that he was soft.
Stricker proved something coming back to win the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in a playoff in May and the John Deere Classic in July.
With his strong finish Monday at TPC Boston, with birdies at the 71st and 72nd holes to win the Deutsche Bank Championship, Stricker showed just how skillfully he’s learned to punch under pressure.
“It’s just a process with me,” Stricker said. “I need those steps, those ladders to build on. That’s what I felt like it’s been for me this year with the confidence and being in contention a lot.”
Tiziani, the retired University of Wisconsin coach who owns Cherokee Country Club in Madison, says Stricker’s rise is in great measure due to his taking charge of his own swing. On yet another hunting trip, Tiziani told his son-in-law that he needed to own his swing.
“Teachers and coaches are overrated,” Tiziani said in a telephone conversation Monday night from his club, where he watched Stricker win on TV. “Players are good because they want to be good. We had that conversation, too. You become a better player when you become your own teacher. I work with Steve, I coach him, but I’ve become more a set of eyes for him.”
The story’s been told about how Stricker fought his way back from his slump hitting countless balls from a heated trailer into the snow during the dead of winter at Cherokee. Tiziani said Stricker did most of that work on his own, spending countless hours hitting shots in front of a mirror, so he could check his club positions himself.
“You could see Steve doing that out there today, looking back at his hands to check his position,” Tiziani said. “It’s become a part of his practice routine.”
Stricker has been renowned for his wedge game and his putting stroke for a long time, but he elevated his game to a new level in that trailer. He did it building a new swing with his driver. Tiziani said Stricker’s arms and club were “getting stuck” behind his body. He changed that with work in the mirror. Stricker shortened his swing, making it more compact.
“The driver’s the biggest part of this for him now, no question about it,” said fellow PGA Tour pro Jerry Kelly, who also makes his home in Madison and was there to hug Stricker at the 18th green Monday. “Even when Steve was down in the doldrums, he still led the Tour in putting. Once [the driving] came, he was prepared to do this. It probably better prepared him because his scrambling was incredible.
“It was great to see him work through it himself. He put so much time into it. He worked so hard.”
Seeing Stricker consistently playing from fairways is a daunting image, Kelly said, because it sets his friend up as one of the game’s great scorers. Stricker is No. 1 on the PGA Tour in putting average. He’s No. 2 to Woods in scoring average.
“When you get Steve inside 100 yards, there is nobody better,” Kelly said.
With his driver more dependable, Stricker is better built to win the game’s biggest events.
“Right now, there’s only one player in the world better than Steve,” Tiziani said. “Steve hasn’t won a major championship, but I’ll tell you, over the next three, four or five years, he’s going to become a factor. You can’t hit in the fairway like he’s doing now, and putt the way he does, and not know that your time is coming.”
“Slowly, I’ve been gaining confidence under the gun,” Stricker said.
That’s the fighter in him talking.