U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Stricker Adroitly Performing Two-Tour Act
June 26, 2019 | South Bend, Ind.
By Dave Shedloski
Senior golf might be the ultimate mulligan for the tour professional, as is often the case, but for a player with Steve Stricker’s well-preserved abilities, it presents the ultimate quandary.
At 52, Stricker is being pulled in two directions, playing on both the PGA Tour Champions as well as the PGA Tour. He’s good enough to do both, which means neither get his full attention. Throw in his upcoming role as USA Ryder Cup captain for the 2020 matches at Whistling Straits in his native Wisconsin, and Stricker is a busy guy.
As he prepares for the 40th U.S. Senior Open, Stricker is coming off a playoff loss to fellow Wisconsin product Jerry Kelly – two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen was also involved – in the American Family Insurance Championship near his home in Madison. Stricker serves as tournament host, so his responsibilities are wide-ranging. Still, he almost won after finishing third in 2018.
“Yeah, I’m a little worn out,” said Stricker, who joked with Scott Verplank, one of his practice round playing partners on Tuesday, that he was going to hop in his golf cart. Verplank was granted an accommodation by the USGA to use a cart because of his lifelong battle with diabetes. Smiling, Stricker just kept walking, of course, in part to not abandon his caddie, his wife Nikki.
Before the AmFam, Stricker finished T-22 in the Memorial Tournament on the regular tour, even though it was wet and played long. There’s enough quality golf in him that he has reason to keep competing against the world’s best players. So he keeps hopping back and forth.
“Yeah, it's been a challenge,” Stricker admitted. “I pull myself in both directions. You know, I still enjoy playing on the regular tour, and I enjoy competing and playing out here, as well. That's been the toughest part, the two or three years that I've played out here. I haven't played a full schedule out here yet. I've been still bouncing back and forth, mainly because of my Ryder Cup duties next year. Being the captain, I feel like I need to continue to be out there, see the guys. I feel like that’s important.
“I've talked to other players that have gone through the process of trying to play both, and they say the same thing, too; it's hard. They told me that you've got to commit to one or the other, and I have not done that.”
Nevertheless, he has played well in his sporadic appearances on the PGA Tour Champions, posting four finishes of sixth or better in seven starts this season, including his fourth career win in the Regions Tradition, a major tournament for the 50-and-over crowd.
A 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, Stricker makes his debut this week in the U.S. Senior Open at the Warren Course at Notre Dame after failing to qualify for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The previous two years Stricker advanced through 36 holes of sectional qualifying to compete in the U.S. Open, another indication that his game hasn’t tapered too much.
And yet another sign is his ability to still move a golf ball an appreciable distance. He never was one of the longer hitters on the PGA Tour, but he always has been long enough. On the Champions Tour, it’s a weapon he never enjoyed before.
“I haven’t lost a lot [with the driver] so I’m longer than a lot of guys on this tour, but I go out there [on the regular tour], and I’m pretty short – I’m really short,” Stricker said.
“He’s not that short,” countered Verplank, one of Stricker’s closest friends. “He’s long enough to still play a lot of courses on the regular tour.”
As an example, Stricker on Tuesday afternoon reached the par-5 second hole in two. The hole plays 562 yards and slightly uphill. Stricker belted a drive of 319 yards and followed with a utility club from 243 yards, his ball eventually stopping at the back of the green. One of only two par-5s on the par-70 course, the hole also was slightly into the wind. Verplank and the other players in the group, Chris DiMarco and Willie Wood, had to lay up.
In his 20 U.S. Open appearances, Stricker posted four top-10 finishes and 13 top-25s. He didn’t finish outside the top-30 in his last 10 starts in the championship. Given that record, his play this year and his major breakthrough at the Tradition, he’d have to be considered among the favorites.
First, though, he needs a little rest while trying to familiarize himself with the Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore design.
“I got a couple days to kind of get my brain right,” Stricker said, having driven here from home Monday night, adding to his fatigue. “Yeah, it was a busy week, got in contention, had a chance to win. A little bit of a letdown when I don't make that putt on the last hole [to win], and now I've got to kind of refocus and get re-energized because it was a tiring week.
“But I shouldn't have any problem getting excited to play here and for a USGA event and the Senior Open. I'll take it easy the next couple days, learn the course a little bit, practice and hopefully be ready on Thursday.”
This week he has no doubts about where he belongs.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears on USGA digital channels.