In a previous life, Steve Stricker was a rising young star whose breakthrough season, 1996, featured a pair of PGA Tour victories and a berth on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. His ballstriking was as dodgy as his putting was reliable, however, and when a man tries to make a living by making 15-footers for par, he eventually finds himself searching for reasons, answers and larger paychecks.
Stricker bottomed out in 2003, began the long climb back in ’06, and since the summer of ’07, he has won six tour events, four of them against premium fields. His golf swing, formerly an educated collection of moving parts, has become as airtight as any you’ll find. Seven years ago, Stricker ranked 190th in driving accuracy, hitting barely 48 percent of his fairways – fewer than some guys do by accident. This year, he’s 23rd, which is more than just turning things around.
At 280 yards per drive, give or take a step, Stricker isn’t going to overpower courses, but with a scoring club in his hand, he has become precise and dependable. When you putt like he does, closer may be better, but anywhere on the green is OK. “Even when things weren’t going well, he still made more 40-footers than anyone alive,” says fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Kelly, a nod to his friend’s standing as one of the best distance putters in the business.
So he hits it straight, hits it tight and holes a lot of putts. One can see Stricker factoring prominently this week at St. Andrews, the biggest question being whether he’ll arrive in Scotland mentally refreshed after winning last week in the Midwest. Although the British Open can be a serious grind, Americans have won 11 of the last 15 gatherings – Tiger Woods three times, eight other Yanks once apiece.
There isn’t any real evidence to suggest heading overseas early helps you win the tournament, or that the adjustment to links golf requires lengthy preparation. At Carnoustie in 1997, Stricker played his way into Sunday's final group alongside Sergio Garcia, then missed three putts inside 5 feet on the front nine, a cause of death far more likely to afflict the man he was playing with.
Sergio would lose to Padraig Harrington in a playoff, and before long, tumble into the tailspin that continues to define his career. Stricker's comeback, meanwhile, was just beginning to take flight. Three years later, there isn't much left for him to do besides win a major. At age 43, there isn't much time left for him to do it.
What made last week’s victory so nice was the timing. Stricker heads into the biggest summer of his career in excellent form, with St. Andrews representing one of his better chances to claim a claret jug. His relatively low, right-to-left ball flight should prove valuable at the Old Course, where wind and rain have been dominating the week-long weather forecast. Veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson, who was on Nick Price’s bag when Price won his lone British title in 1994, has played a key role in transforming Stricker from a good player to a very good one. Never will that influence seem more crucial to their success than it will this week.
August’s PGA Championship offers Stricker a rare chance to play in a major in his home state. He didn’t qualify for the ’04 PGA at Whistling Straits – finishing 189th on the previous year’s money list will do that to you. With Tiger Woods still searching for his first victory in 2010, there is a FedEx Cup championship and a Player of the Year trophy to be had. So much fruit on the vine, only so many opportunities to pluck it.
Since leaving Charles Howell III to work for Stricker two years ago, a big part of Johnson’s job has been convincing Stricker that he is indeed one of the world’s best golfers. Humble to an extreme before he endured five years of futility, Stricker’s lack of self-confidence isn’t what it was in ‘03, but he’ll never acquire the alpha-dog traits of Woods or Phil Mickelson, either. After squandering a three-stroke lead with a final-round 77 at the 2009 Bob Hope Classic, Johnson saw the down side.
That seems like a long time ago. Five victories ago, to be exact. This time next week, maybe it will be six.