The message came through with no translation required.
“Hey bud,” Woods told Stricker. “You know, there’s no way I’m playing with you at the Ryder Cup, so you better find somebody else to play with.”
Stricker loved it. In Woods’ code, he knew exactly what that meant. He knew it meant that Woods was fired up about partnering with him again when the Americans meet the Europeans at Medinah just outside Chicago this week.
U.S. captain Davis Love III hasn’t announced his pairings publicly yet, but it will be an upset if Woods and Stricker aren’t back together for fourballs and foursomes.
Woods and Stricker have become the most formidable American pairing in international team matches today, and they both have some special mojo working in Chicago.
Woods has won two PGA Championships at Medinah and owns five other BMW/Western Open titles in suburban Chicago.
Stricker couldn’t have been more motivated to make this Ryder Cup team. It’s being played practically in his backyard. A Wisconsin native raised in Edgerton just a couple hours north of Chicago, Stricker played at the University of Illinois. He’s revered among Illini followers. He won the Western Open in ’96 and is a three-time winner of the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill. Stricker’s so beloved there, they gave away bobbleheads with his likeness at this year’s John Deere Classic.
As a golf partnership, Woods and Stricker were an instant hit when U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples first put them together at Harding Park three years ago. They rolled to a 4-0 mark with Couples never separating them.
“We really gel together,” Woods said of that first union.
At the last Ryder Cup in Wales, they teamed to go 2-1, once again never separating for the partnered events in the rain-adjusted schedule.
They’re 6-2 overall as partners in team events.
“Tiger and Stricker have had great success,” Love said. “I wouldn’t want to play against them, for sure.”
As an assistant captain in Wales, Love got to see the chemistry between Woods and Stricker on uncomfortable foreign turf.
“Steve’s said Tiger makes him feel comfortable,” Love said. “Well, you know what? I think Steve makes Tiger feel comfortable, and that's what you want. You want those guys to both be comfortable with the pairing.”
After Stricker was announced as the winner of the Payne Stewart Award at the Tour Championship last week, Woods sought him out and hugged him on the driving range.
This shapes up as a pivotal Ryder Cup for Woods because the event is so at odds with the rest of his terrific resume.
By the end of his career, Woods may go down as the most prolific winner in PGA Tour history. Yet, if the Americans lose the Ryder Cup this week, he may be on his way to being remembered as the biggest loser in American Ryder Cup annals.
This will mark Woods’ seventh Ryder Cup appearance, but he has played on just one winning team, at Brookline 13 years ago.
Woods is trying to avoid a fifth consecutive loss in the event. No American has played on five consecutive losing teams in Ryder Cup history.
“We didn't play well at the right time, and that's just the way it goes,” Woods said. “Hopefully, this year we'll play well at the right time.”
Woods is 13-14-2 in Ryder Cup play with most of his trouble coming in partnered matches. He’s 4-1-1 in singles. Throw out his partnerships with Stricker, and Woods is 3-6-1 in foursomes and 4-6 in fourballs.
Why the struggle with partners?
There are theories.
“In the early days, it was like Tiger going to the dentist,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said. “He wanted a good outcome, but nothing he looked forward to too much.
“The second part was he was so intimidating, he would intimidate his own partner, just because his aura was so amazing. It's changed. I think he's softened with Stricker and a little bit with Furyk, and I think now he's going to be a lot better team player than he was in the early days.”
Another theory was that Woods is less programmed for team competition.
“I don't know that Tiger's mindset as a golfer – how would you put this? – really lends itself to team play,” NBC’s Roger Maltbie said. “Johnny has referred to it many, many times: The lone wolf mentality. I think that certainly is a quality that Tiger has as much or more than anybody I've ever witnessed.
“Tiger is his own entity, and I think mixing into a team format was difficult for him. I don't read too much into who is a good partner for Tiger or who is a bad partner for Tiger. I think it had more to do with how he viewed the game, how he approached the game, how he approached his career, what he wanted from the game. I think that’s changed as he’s gone along.”
Stricker didn’t play on those early Woods’ teams. Stricker played his first Ryder Cup with Woods in 2010, his first Presidents Cup with him in 2009.
Asked about Woods’ team struggles, Stricker shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t know,” Stricker said. “He has been as much a team player as anybody when I have been part of these teams. At every one of them, he was trying to win. I’ve been paired with him, and he is as fired up as anyone. He’s so competitive. He doesn’t like to lose at anything. It’s why he has won 74 times on the PGA Tour. I think it’s all important to him.”
Woods’ camaraderie with fellow players has been noticeably on display the last couple years. It goes way beyond the friendship with Rory McIlroy. Back at the WGC-Bridgestone, South African Branden Grace was paired for the first time with Woods. Grace called Woods “the nicest guy I’ve ever played with.”
That’s pretty much what most PGA Tour pros will tell you about Stricker.
Stricker was presented this year’s Payne Stewart Award for his respect of the game’s traditions, his charitable work and professionalism. The award is a testament to his standing in the game beyond his 12 PGA Tour titles.
Stricker, 45, and Woods, 36, are golf’s odd couple. Stricker’s the humble, Midwestern boy who frequently tears up with emotion and who slumped so badly in his career he was twice named Comeback Player of the Year. Woods is the California kid who became a superstar, the son of a U.S. Army Special Forces war veteran with his own affection for military life.
As teammates, though, Woods sees more similarities than differences with Stricker.
They’re both terrific putters, and Woods says they plot their way around courses similarly.
“I think we approach the game the same way, with the same mentality,” Woods said. “We just play it differently. I hit the ball a little bit further, but our mentality and how we play and how we compete is exactly the same.”
Stricker has a special gift for uniting unlikely forces.
As a Wisconsin boy, he’s a Chicago Bears fan. He also has that University of Illinois degree. Uniting folks from Wisconsin and Illinois over any cause is quite the trick, but you’ll see them united in support of Stricker at Medinah.
Stricker says he never saw this partnership with Woods coming way back in ’97 when he played with Woods for the first time at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Though Stricker was coming off two wins in ’96 and a fourth-place finish on the PGA Tour money list, he was blown away seeing Woods’ superior gifts in that first pairing.
“I didn’t play well,” Stricker said. “I could see this guy was really good. I just thought he was at a different level than I was, and he always has been, and I’m fine with that. I think it just took me awhile to get to the point of feeling comfortable around him.”
Stricker didn’t really get to know Woods well until the start of the FedEx Cup in 2009. They began the playoffs with Woods No. 1 in FedEx Cup points and Stricker No. 2. They played the first two rounds of The Barclays together and the first two rounds of the Deutsche Bank Championship together. They struck up a friendship that led them to wonder how they would pair together for the upcoming Presidents Cup that year.
“It was kind of like trying to get a girlfriend in high school,” Stricker joked.
Woods told Couples he would like a Stricker pairing, and Stricker told Couples the same. And Couples put them together.
Stricker thinks it works for him because he is long past trying to compare himself with Woods.
“Tiger does extraordinary things that nobody else does,” Stricker said. “You just have to say, `That’s OK, that’s him.’ But I do some things that are good. I can’t drive it as far as Tiger does, or hit those towering irons way up in the air, but I can do other little things that make up for it. That’s what has given me the confidence to go out and play with some of these guys and be comfortable around them. I’m old enough, I’ve been around enough, that I feel OK about the differences.”
Woods and Stricker may have different demeanors, but their approaches both work well in match play. Woods won those three consecutive U.S. Junior and three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles and won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship three times. Stricker also won the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2001. Stricker’s match-play grit is so respected that the Americans sent him out first to lead off singles at Wales two years ago and he beat a red-hot Lee Westwood.
Woods and Stricker both won three points in a losing cause for the Americans in Wales.
“I never saw this kind of pairing coming after that first time Tiger and I played together, the way we mesh together so well,” Stricker said. “I don’t even know why, but we get along really well. I respect him.”
The mutual respect should make them tough team to beat this week.