Stricker slowing down, but he's not close to retirement

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DUBLIN, Ohio – At 48 years old Steve Stricker hasn’t played more than 13 events in three years, he signed on to host a Champions Tour event starting next season in Wisconsin and is scheduled to play Monday’s 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier because, “I don't know how many of these I'm going to get to play.”

Just don’t suggest he’s closing in on retirement.

“I do feel like I'm going to work hard and keep my body in decent shape and play a limited schedule out here,” he said on Tuesday at Muirfield Village where he won in 2011.

“I think I've got exempt status out here until 52, so it will be fun to play some out here in some of the events that I've had some success at or where I enjoy going, [Memorial] being one of them or Colonial.”

While that may not seem like a surprise for a player who has won seven times on the PGA Tour since 2009, Stricker has embraced a less-is-more approach to his trade the past three seasons, limiting his schedule largely to the majors, World Golf Championships and a select few other starts.

In 2013, Stricker traded a full-time life on the road – which he had been a part of since joining the Tour in 1994 – for family and the languid pace of life in Madison, Wis.

Things got even slower when he underwent back surgery late last year following a run of hip and quad ailments that all stemmed from a bulging L5 disc in his back. He didn’t make his first start of the season until the Masters and he’s played just three times since on what he says is a cautious schedule.

“I'm finding it hard to put multiple days of practice together and tournaments together yet,” Stricker said. “But I have noticed that I still have some more strengthening to do and issues to kind of piece through and get through it.”

But while the body is reluctant, the mind remains strong. That’s always been Stricker’s greatest asset, even more than a silky putting stroke that has made him the circuit’s de facto putting coach for the likes of Tiger Woods.

This is, after all, the same guy who won twice in 1996, just his third year on Tour, before lapsing into the type of slump that sends most players looking for a day job.

In 2003, he finished 189th on the money list and failed to crack the top 125 in earnings for three consecutive years primarily because of a balky driver that produced a wild hook.

On Tuesday at the Memorial he was asked about his decision to play Monday’s U.S. Open qualifier for the first time since 2006, just as he began to emerge from his competitive crash, and his mind drifted back to those uncertain days.

He qualified for that year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot and for two days proved to himself that his rebuilt driver swing could hold up under major championship pressure, carding rounds of 70-69 for the halfway lead.

“The [2006] U.S. Open really gave me a lot of confidence,” said Stricker, who tied for sixth place at Winged Foot. “I came out and I actually drove the ball really well in that position. That gave me a lot of confidence going forward. The things I've been working on obviously were working, they were holding up under the gun.”

The next season he would win The Barclays, the first of the new four-event FedEx Cup playoff series, and the Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year Award for the second consecutive season.

He has since become a leaderboard staple, joining one of just three players, along with Phil Mickelson and Hunter Mahan, to earn a trip to the Tour Championship in every FedEx Cup season before last season’s medical-induced miscue. He’s also a competitive anomaly in a sport that demands equal parts quality and quantity.

Consider that 10 of the top 15 players on the current FedEx Cup point list already have more than 13 starts with three majors, a World Golf Championship and four playoff events still looming on the schedule, yet that would be considered a “normal year” for Stricker.

There’s also that Champions Tour event, the American Family Insurance Championship – which he won’t even be qualified to play for another two seasons –yet he said he will happily embrace a ceremonial roll.

His history as a dogged competitor also lifted Stricker into the fringes of the conversation as a potential U.S. Ryder Cup captain, particularly following the changes to the traditional selection process made earlier this year.

He would be 53 when the matches are played at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., in 2020 and he didn’t shy away from the idea of taking the helm for a home game. 

“It would be fun. I don’t know that I’d get the opportunity, but it would be a welcome job especially with it being in Wisconsin,” Stricker said. “Even last year [when he was an assistant for Tom Watson], I’d rather be playing but it was still a great experience.”

All that, however, will have to wait. Despite a schedule and a body that may be leaning toward the golden years, Stricker will gladly hold a multitude of titles – part-time player, tournament host, potential Ryder Cup captain – but there’s one description he has no interest in – retired.