SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Whistling Straits doesn’t look like it belongs in Wisconsin.
You drive through the front gate, and you think you’ve been transported to the rugged coast off the Forth of Clyde in Scotland or something.
All those cornfields just outside the gate, all those pretty little farmhouses with their rustic red barns and silos, they seem so far away.
But it sure sounds like Wisconsin around here.
You hear that whenever Steve Stricker steps to a tee box.
This is his home, his sweet motherland, and he’s the beloved favorite son this week. All the good folks from small towns like Ladysmith, Lodi, Peshtigo and Sturgeon Bay, places so much like where Stricker grew up in Edgerton, and from the larger cities like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay, they’re rooting hard for Stricker around here.
There’s a lot of love being poured on the Wisconsin boy already this week. When he reached the last hole in his practice round Wednesday, he was showered with howls of delight.
Stricker’s an emotional man, he will give you that, and he is sure to be dealing with a lot of feelings when he steps to the first tee box at 1:20 p.m. ET on Thursday. His wife, Nicki, is back on his bag as caddie this week. It all promises to get even more emotional by week’s end, whether that’s in a dreamy finish hoisting a trophy, or a more heavy-hearted finish, missing a cut on Friday. It’s all heightened for Stricker knowing he could be playing his final major championship.
Yes, his last major. He said he’s resigned to the possibility.
“I probably won’t play another major,” Stricker said Wednesday in the shadow of the Whistling Straits clubhouse. “Well, maybe I’ll try to qualify for the U.S. Open when it’s at Erin Hills [in Wisconsin in 2017]. Hopefully, that will happen, but not too many majors do you get to play in your home state.”
Stricker, 48, is a 12-time PGA Tour winner who would relish electrifying all these hometown fans with a run at winning his first major. Yes, he has fantasized about winning here. He shared that dream with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this week.
“Yeah, that would be pretty special,” Stricker said. “It’s run through my mind a few times how cool of a thing that would be. There’s a long ways to go, and I’m going to have to pull some tricks out of my hat to do that, but you never know. That’s why we play this game and sports in general. I feel like I can play well.”
Stricker made his best run at winning a major in the PGA Championship. He took a share of the lead into the final round at Sahalee in 1998, ultimately finishing second to Vijay Singh, two shots back. He equaled the lowest round ever shot in a major, opening the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club with a 63 four years ago. He has finished T-7 in two of the last three PGA Championships. That’s how he got into this week’s event. He qualified off his T-7 finish at Valhalla last year.
Giant galleries are expected at Whistling Straits, and that means giant support for Stricker.
While home games are usually an advantage in sports, that’s not necessarily the case in golf.
There’s typically additional pressure on the hometown guy, who has more distractions to deal with than he does on the road. There are family and friends wanting more of his time. There is more media. There are more strangers wanting more attention, more autographs.
GolfChannel.com asked Stricker if a home game is really an advantage in golf.
“It can go either way,” Stricker said. “What I’ve experienced in the past, when we’ve played in the Greater Milwaukee Open, you get on a roll, and you can feed off that momentum. If you don’t, you kind of press too hard. David Hearn just went through it in Canada a couple weeks ago, trying to win up there. He said it’s great fun, but it’s tough. It’s the weight of everyone on your shoulders, and you want to play well for everybody else, and there are all the extra demands. Yeah, it can be tough, but it’s also fun.”
Stricker regularly plays as a favorite at the John Deere Classic, where he has thrived in the role. He won that event three consecutive years (2009-11). As a Wisconsin guy who went to school at the University of Illinois, he’s a hometown guy on two levels in the Quad Cities event.
One of his generation’s best putters, Stricker’s chances this week might just come down to his flat stick.
Coming off back surgery last December, Stricker’s semi-retired status translated into even fewer events this year. He has made just eight starts this season, with a T-27 finish at Colonial his best finish. He has slid to No. 138 in the world rankings. His putting hasn’t been good. In fact, it’s never been worse. He’s 164th in strokes gained putting, his worst ranking in his career. It prompted him to take extreme measures this week. He has benched the Odyssey White Hot putter that he has used for almost 15 years for a new Scotty Cameron GoLo.
“I’ve been putting horrible,” Stricker said. “I look down, and it’s something different now. See if that helps.”
Stricker likes the rest of his game. If he drops a few putts early, he could put a real jolt into Whistling Straits.
“I’m hitting it nicely,” Stricker said. “If I can continue to do that and gain a little confidence on the greens, I’ll be fine. It will be interesting to see tomorrow. I’m excited to play. I’m excited to get out there and test it out.”
All those Wisconsin fans are excited to help him make that dream finish come true.