For a half hour or so earlier this week, Steve Stricker got the bow-down treatment another Crimson Tider—Alabama football coach Nick Saban—receives in his home state.
That was a few weeks after he and his family watched the final nine holes of The Masters—albeit on tape—alongside NCAA basketball champion Virginia head coach Tony Bennett in Naples, Florida.
The Edgerton native and Madison resident now enjoys the benefits of his successful pro golf career. But Stricker reminded everybody at a PGA Championship press conference Wednesday that he is where he is because of hard work—and frozen toes.
A transcript of Wednesday’s event shows Stricker remembers both the good and the struggling years of his pro golf career.
It started taking off in 1993 when the then 26-year-old Stricker finished tied for fourth in the Canadian Open, playing on a sponsor’s exemption.
In 1996, he had seven top-10 finishes—all either firsts, seconds or thirds. He earned $1,383,739 to finish fourth on money list.
But in 2000, Stricker’s success began to diminish. In 2003, he finished 189th on the money list. That was his lowest finish since he turned pro in 1993. He lost his PGA Card after the 2004 season.
His career was at a crossroads, and he knew he had only one direction to go.
“This is what I’ve got to do. I’m not capable of getting any other job in life probably,” he said of his realization during that point of his life. “So I’m like, I’m a golfer, that’s what I’ve done my entire life, so let’s suck it up a little bit, let’s go to work, work harder.”
He did. Using the shelter of carved out trailer homes on the Cherokee Golf Course in Madison, Stricker spent hour upon hour during the winter of 2005 hitting yellow golf balls to the practice range. His father-in-law, Dennis Tiziani—the long-time University of Wisconsin golf coach and owner of Cherokee GC—broke down his swing and put it back together.
“He’ll always put in that extra hour,” Tiziani said that next summer. “He would go up there to the trailers on his own, day after day after day. He got himself into this problem, but here’s the strength of it—he got himself out.”
The shivers and hitting into snowbanks put Stricker back on the rails.
At the end of the 2005 season, he earned his PGA card back at qualifying school. In 2006, he was voted the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year.
He made 15 of 17 cuts out of the Past Champion qualifying category, where he needed sponsor exemptions or Top-10s to get into most fields. The then 39-year-old Stricker earned $1,811,811 with seven top-10s.
Tiziani provided guidance that winter, but Stricker knew it was him to get his career back into the fairway.
“I knew I’m the guy out there hitting the shots, and it’s easy to take direction from people, but deep down, you’ve got to be the guy that’s comfortable with hitting and executing the shots under the gun and feel comfortable with what you’re doing,” Stricker said.
“(I) just went to work harder and took more ownership of what I was doing,” he said.
Last weekend, Stricker earned his first major championship title on the PGA Champions Tour, winning the Regions Tradition held at Birmingham, Alabama.
That earned him a police escort to the airport, where he flew to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and then drove to Farmingdale, New York where Bethpage is located.
“I felt like Nick Saban leaving Birmingham,” Stricker said. “If you’ve ever seen Nick Saban come into Birmingham, it’s four squad cars, multiple police escort, and I was able to get one of those to the airport. I felt pretty special leaving.”
That is what success can provide. Stricker will captain the U.S. squad in the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.
Stricker will tee off at 12:05 p.m. today in the 101st PGA Championship. He does not have much of a chance to win this major.
But he had to smile inside a bit Wednesday, recounting those winter hours spent hitting yellow golf balls outside in Madison.
He sucked it up and got it done.
Tom Miller is a sports writer and page designer for The Gazette.