SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — There will be tears this week. Tears of joy, tears of disappointment, tears of pride — there’s no way to know which just yet.
But there will be tears. Steve Stricker, your Team U.S.A. Ryder Cup captain, is a crier. It is something to admire, because it reveals his deep passion for golf, his even deeper humility and his sensitive side. It is also something to joke about, even with him. He knows he is a crier and he knows we know. It’s all good.
When he won the U.S. Senior Open two years ago, surviving the unusual pressure of taking a six-shot lead into the final round, it was probably the biggest win of a good-almost-great career, one that 99 percent of PGA Tour rookies would love to have. Stricker was asked by a Fox Sports broadcaster moments after he’d held the Senior Open trophy during the awards ceremony what this victory meant after 21 tries in the U.S. Open.
Stricker’s face turned red, his eyes moistened and a wide smile spread across his face as he laughed and spluttered, “You’re trying to get me to cry, aren’t you?” He was and Stricker did. Still smiling after he gave the man a friendly push on the shoulder, Stricker paused to regather his emotions. He was too choked up to get a word out and the remaining crowd around the green in Notre Dame, Ind., recognized his predicament and applauded to buy some time. That included his wife and caddie, Nicky, who was standing with their two beautiful daughters, Bobbi and Izzi, watching their father/husband/hero.
Finally, he said in a cracking voice, “Well, it’s been a lot of years.” Another pause. “This means a lot.”
Pass the tissues, please, because this week is even bigger. The Ryder Cup is on the menu and if the Americans win it for only the fourth time since 1993, the Ryder Cup captaincy will be The Legacy of Steve Stricker, in capital letters. He already has an admirable legacy—12 wins on the PGA Tour, including three John Deere Classics and one World Golf Championship title; seven PGA Tour Champions victories, including three senior majors; his own senior circuit event, the American Family Championship in Madison, Wis., which he hosts; five Wisconsin State Open titles; and a trail of players and fans awed by the authenticity of his Mr. Nice Guy persona.
It’s been a good ride for a small-town kid from Edgerton, Wis., just a few miles from Madison. No, make that a great ride. He never won a major championship, it’s true. He had his chances and, he’d be the first to admit, he didn’t take advantage of them and too often faded when he needed to charge. It would be an unfair generalization to say he was just too nice to win a major but there is a kernel of truth in that.
At 54, this is his moment. He’ll hate that sentence because this week Stricker is all about the team. That’s the Ryder Cup mantra. The Europeans live by that and it’s one reason they dominate this event, having won seven of the nine Cups in the 21st century. Even Spain’s Sergio Garcia, not normally known for his unselfishness, is all about the team during Ryder Cup week and it’s clear he meant it when he said, “I’d rather go 0-5 and win the Ryder Cup than go 5-0 and lose it.”
The Ryder Cup can change the way the world views a man. Ask Bernhard Langer, who missed a final putt. Ask Bernard Gallacher, a Scot who had a nice, quiet career with ten European Tour wins but is best remembered as the man who captained the European team to a win on American soil at Oak Hill in 1995. Ask Ben Crenshaw, who won a pair of Masters. What could be bigger than that? The Miracle at Brookline, where his Ryder Cuppers rallied from a 10-6 deficit with an unforgettable Sunday to win, validating Crenshaw’s shaky Saturday-night prediction, “I have a good feeling about this. I’m a big believer in fate.” Two decades later, Crenshaw is a Ryder Cup captain first, a Masters champion second.
This could be Stricker’s story if the favored Americans pull out a win for him—sorry, Captain, a win for the team. First, the Americans have to beat the tag that they don’t have the chemistry of the Europeans, they don’t care as much and maybe they get out-prepared and out-played every two years for a reason.
“When you’re getting beat, it’s hard to look like your bonded,” Stricker said this week. “They’ve done a really good job of that, beating us out of nine of the last twelve. But I’ve been part of plenty of these team rooms where the chemistry inside is nothing but great. I think there’s a misconception of our team. Guys are anxious to play. They’re very proud to play for the USA wearing red, white and blue and to be here in Wisconsin. It’s all fine, it’s all good.”
That’s a captain doing his cheerleading job, sure, but Stricker is a believer. He believes in himself, something he didn’t really grow into until later in his career. You may recall he slid off the PGA Tour radar for a few years but suddenly came back big in his 40s. He was semi-retired, playing just 13 times in 2014, for instance, yet remained among the tour’s best. He finished 13th or better ten times, had a chance to win two majors on Sunday (let’s try to forget that inexplicable shanked iron shot early in the final U.S. Open round at Merion) and played his way onto a fifth Presidents Cup team. He won eight times between 2008 and 2012 and was pretty much the third-best American behind the Twin Towers, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
No one has had a career quite like Stricker. He is the first American Ryder Cup captain without a major title on his resume, he had a 3-7-1 Ryder Cup record, and may be the least-decorated. He may also be the best-liked. Stricker has never lost touch with his small-town roots and simple values like honesty, grace and respect.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” Stricker said. “I think back to the childhood golf and all the years playing on tour. I never thought I would be in position to captain the Ryder Cup team. It’s a great position. I’m very honored and humbled. But I look back at all the things that have taken place throughout my career and this was not on my radar for sure.”
American team member Jordan Spieth recalled the first nine holes of his first Presidents Cup match, paired with Stricker in 2013 at Ohio’s Muirfield Village Golf Club. “He carried me big time that first nine holes,” Spieth said. “He’ll probably throw this off (dismiss it) but he put me on his back. I had a couple of water balls and chunked a 6-iron and he put his hand around me and said, ‘I got you, just settle in, you’re good, no worries.’ He was the father influence for me on the course even though we were teammates. There’s no fakeness to Steve Stricker. What you see every time you talk with him is what he is.”
Steve and Nicky’s Incredible Adventure (the title if this was a movie) has had some down periods. Steve Stricker had some remarkable lows with his game that make Spieth’s recent struggles pale in comparison. How bad did it get? Stricker is the only person who won the PGA Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year two years in a row and he didn’t win either for coming back from a physical injury.
Next up, award-wise, could be a tattoo. Since European captain Padraig Harrington agreed to get a tattoo if his team wins, Stricker was asked if he’d do likewise. Stricker said he’d have to check with his wife and daughters first to see if it was OK. Yes, he really said that. Welcome to America’s heartland, where real people live.
“The players gave me an idea what I could put on there,” Stricker said. “I told them where I was going to put it. It was going to go right on my…” He paused, grinned in embarrassment, slid his hand around the side of his rear end, and then completed the sentence with a naughty word—“cheek.”
Who doesn’t like Steve Stricker? He’s 54 going on 34 and humble almost to a fault. He was asked about the Ryder Cup tradition of putting names into an envelope of players who would sit out if the other team had players unable to play due to illness. He said he would discuss some candidates with his assistants but probably not tell them which names he’d put into the envelope. Stricker knows the only real secret is one that isn’t shared.
“You don’t want anybody to know they went in the envelope,” Stricker said. “I wouldn’t want to know if I was in there and I probably was in there at some point. I probably should have been in there in 2012.” He laughed at his self-deprecation, then added, “Or Tiger and I both should have been in there the way we played.”
His legacy is secure. This is not a comparison I would make lightly but the person Stricker most reminds me of is Byron Nelson, a great man who was almost angelic in his goodness. Stricker is similar but with a lingering competitor’s edge.
“What’s most memorable when you think of Steve is that he’s a nice guy but he’s tough on the course,” Harrington said of his opposing captain this week. “He’s a perfect gentleman, he’s exactly how you would want a golfer.”
This weekend, Stricker has a shot at the biggest title of his career—winning Ryder Cup team captain — and his team is heavily favored even though Europe has won three of the last four Cups. If it happens, he’ll tell you it won’t be his victory, it will belong to his team.
It won’t change him or his legacy of niceness and integrity. In Wisconsin, he can’t become any more of a hero and role model than he already is. It would change the way he’s perceived. The first item in every future Steve Stricker career summary would be: “Captained the victorious 2021 Ryder Cup team.”
He’ll be just as proud of that line as he will be of that promised tattoo. But first, there’s a weekend of golf to play.
“Now the fun starts,” Stricker said. “Let’s get her rolling, right?”
Get ready, Wisconsin. It’s about to get loud.