SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – No pressure or anything, Steve Stricker. There’s only an entire state hanging on your every shot at the PGA Championship.
Wisconsin’s favorite golfer is generating the kind of frenzy normally reserved for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Whistling Straits this week. Fans line every hole he plays, asking for his autograph and wishing him well. His mere appearance on the green prompts hearty applause. The governor gave him a shoutout. Some kids are even running around the course in bright green “Stricker’s Soldiers” T-shirts.
“Do I feel extra expectations? Yeah, I do,” Stricker said Wednesday. “Like I do every other week, I want to play well. But I REALLY want to play well here, you know what I mean?”
With snow covering the ground about half the year, Wisconsin is not exactly known as a breeding ground for golfers. Oh, it produces a standout here and there, but they usually leave their home state for warmer climates when it’s time to get serious about the game.
Which only endears Stricker more to his fellow Cheeseheads. The No. 3 golfer in the world still lives full-time in Madison, trading his clubs for blaze-orange camouflage in the fall.
Not to mention that he missed out the last time Wisconsin played host to a major.
Stricker was one of the game’s rising stars in the mid-1990s, finishing fourth on the money list in 1996 and earning runner-up honors at the 1998 PGA Championship. Five years later, though, his career was in shambles. He made the cut just eight times in 2003 and, for the first time since turning pro, failed to record at least one top-10 finish.
The next year wasn’t any better, so much so that when the PGA made its first visit to Whistling Straits, Stricker wasn’t invited.
“It was difficult. My game, though, was not in any situation to be put on display, either,” said Stricker, who watched the tournament from home. “But it was kind of a shot in the arm, too, showing that I needed to get better and needed to put some extra work in.”
Scraping by on past champions status and sponsor exemptions, Stricker earned comeback player of the year honors in 2006 with seven top-10 finishes, including ties for sixth at the U.S. Open and seventh at the PGA. He became the first player to win the award twice – in consecutive years, no less – in ’07 with his first victory (The Barclays) in more than six years. He also was runner-up in the FedEx Cup and finished No. 4 on the money list.
“It was just dedication again. … And I figured I wasn’t really capable of doing anything else and just had to put the work together,” Stricker said. “I started hitting balls and started changing things, because what I was doing wasn’t really working all that well. A lot to do with it was my attitude. I had a poor attitude going. I didn’t have a lot of confidence.
“My mental approach and my physical game had to change, and that’s what I went to work on at the end of the 2005 season, beginning of 2006. And I still continue to work on the same things today.”
Since his comeback, Stricker has emerged as one of the tour’s most consistent players. He was part of the U.S. team that ended Europe’s Ryder Cup winning streak in 2008. He had his best season yet last year, winning three times and finishing in the top 10 eight other times.
He’s already won twice this year and, at No. 4 in the world, has an outside chance of claiming the No. 1 ranking this week.
“I like to think I’m wiser,” the 43-year-old said, when asked to explain his longevity. “I’ve had, obviously, my ups and downs, and I’ve learned a lot through both those periods. But you can’t replace experience. You learn a lot throughout the course of your career. I’ve been able to experience a lot of different things, and you can use those to your advantage as you go along.
“It’s been a good run, and I would like to continue it.”
About the only thing Stricker lacks now is a major.
For all his consistency the rest of the year, Stricker hasn’t done particularly well in the majors. He has a handful of top 10s since 1998, but he hasn’t cracked the top five at a major in more than a decade.
“If I knew the key, hopefully I would have won by now,” Stricker said. “It’s a little more difficult in the final round of a major. Everything’s a little more intense, the pressure’s a little bit greater. You need to handle that.”
And that pressure will climb even higher this week.
Stricker is doing his best to treat the PGA like any other major. But even the drive to the course reminds him this week is something special – “It feels like home. All I see are corn, soybeans and cows.” – and it’s impossible to block out the love from all corners of Wisconsin.
“To play well in front of the home fans and my family and friends would be an unbelievable experience,” Stricker said. “But you can’t try to do it. You’ve just got to go about your business and take each shot, each day as it comes and try not to put that added extra pressure on myself. Hopefully I can do that.”