IN THE HUNT WHILE CLINGING TO HIS RURAL ROOTS, STEVE STRICKER HAS BLOSSOMED INTO THE TOUR'S QUIET KILLER

January 20, 1997

Welcome to Edgerton, Wis. (pop. 4,254), where living in the fast
lane means passing a tractor and working on the cutting edge
means operating a Harvester. Edgerton is the place where Cheers
meets Green Acres. "It's not a fast-paced existence," says Bob
Stricker, a native. "Things move kind of slow here."

That becomes clear when you drive into town on Highway 51 and
see the sign that proudly proclaims Edgerton as the boyhood home
of Sterling North, author of Rascal. North also wrote Raccoons
Are the Brightest People and a slew of other books that weren't
made into Harrison Ford movies, but Rascal, a nostalgic account
of North's rural adolescence (i.e., growing up a Cheesehead),
was a local best-seller back in the 1970s.

Things change slowly in Edgerton, but occasionally they do
change. The Nunn Bush shoe factory was once the town's big
employer, but the plant closed long ago. Commuters to Madison,
the state capital, 20 miles away, are starting to discover the
place. And with all due respect to North and NASCAR driver
Richie Bickle, another native, Edgerton is now best known as the
home of Bob Stricker's youngest son, Steve, a budding PGA Tour
star.

You may have heard mention of Steve between all those Tiger
Woods sound bites. For a quiet, soft-spoken guy, Stricker had a
loud year in 1996. His first win, at the Kemper Open, brought a
wave of attention because his wife, Nicki, is also his caddie.
(They even made PEOPLE magazine.) An impressive second win, a
cakewalk in the Western Open, followed. Five assorted seconds
and thirds lifted Stricker's earnings to more than $1.38 million
(fourth on the Tour's money list) and his Sony World Ranking to
14th. Stricker also played in the Presidents Cup, going 2-3 with
a crucial singles win, and starred in the Alfred Dunhill Cup at
the Old Course in St. Andrews, where he was 5-0 in another U.S.
victory. "He's going to be a superstar, if he isn't already,"
says Tom Lehman, who thought so much of Stricker that he asked
to be paired with him in the Presidents Cup. (They went 1-3 as a
team.) "I'm a Gopher; he's a Cheesehead. We're a perfect team,"
adds Lehman, a Minnesotan.

Stricker shares some of the same traits that helped make Lehman
the player of the year in '96: He's gritty, long, plays better
on tough courses, is a solid iron player, manages his game well
and, when his putter is on, is the equal of any player in the
world. Check out these stats: Stricker finished sixth in driving
distance and third in putting. If you drive for show and putt
for dough, imagine what happens when you do both?

Stricker, 29, has been anything but an overnight success. He
spent several years on the Canadian tour and needed four tries
before he made it beyond the second stage of the Tour's Q
school. He finally got his card in 1994, won more than $100,000
in his first four events and has evolved from just another guy
on Tour to an elite player. It was, he says, a matter of
confidence.

"I played in the NCAA Championship all four years and felt as if
I were maybe Division II and didn't belong there," says
Stricker, an All-America and three-time Big Ten champion at
Illinois. "It's just my nature. I'm a pretty shy guy. I grew up
in a small town and went to a small high school. Golfers are
supposed to come from the South. I came from Wisconsin, and it
was, 'How can you make the Tour when you play only seven months
a year?' I won a lot of tournaments in college but never the
NCAA or a big amateur event, so there was always some doubt in
the back of my mind. That has taken time to overcome."

Former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate befriended Stricker last
year after they played together in the BellSouth Classic near
Atlanta. "We started hitting balls together," Pate says, "and
I'd say, 'You're the best player on Tour. You can break every
record out here. You can be Number 1.' Steve would smile and be
coy, and Nicki would laugh. Dead serious, I'd say, 'I'm not
kidding.' Steve would almost be giggling. It became kind of a
ritual for us."

Pate had once received the same kind of encouragement. "Lee
Trevino used to look at me and say, 'I'm telling you, son, you
can beat these guys,'" Pate says. "Acceptance from older players
can mean a lot because you need so much mental preparation and
belief in yourself before you can win. Steve has as much talent
as anybody."

That point is not in dispute. "He's definitely one of the top
players in the world," Lehman says. "Nobody really knows that
yet except the players. Steve doesn't have that
look-at-me-I'm-a-star personality. He's quiet. He wants to be a
great player, but he won't tell you he's great. Eventually his
game will be so good, you won't be able to ignore him."

Woods expects Stricker to emerge as one of his strongest rivals.
"He's got a huge game," says Woods. "His fundamentals are solid,
and he's an athlete. I know he wants it. He never says
anything--he seems kind of shy--but you look at him and know
that whatever is inside is tough."

Madison's Andy North (no relation to the author of Rascal) is a
two-time U.S. Open champion and to date the best player from
Wisconsin. He agrees with Woods's assessment. "He's just
starting to figure out how good he is, which is really good,"
North says. "He can be a dominant factor in our game, and he's a
good person. There are a lot of guys who are great players but
jerks."

How does a small town like Edgerton produce such a player? It
helped that the Towne Country Club, a rock-hard, nine-hole
course with only a couple of bunkers was just a wedge shot from
Stricker's house. "It's not what you think of when you hear the
words country club," says Bob Stricker. "We referred to it as
the Goat Ranch. It's short, very hilly, wooded and has blind
holes. It wasn't ideal for learning to play the game. There was
no range and until recent years no practice green. If you wanted
to practice putting, you had to sneak onto one of the greens and
make sure no one was coming."

Steve and his older brother, Scott, were regular sneakers. "You
could see the clubhouse from our window," says Scott, 33, who
still lives in Edgerton, "so we had trouble getting our chores
done in the summer. We'd be up there all day."

Although Scott was a good player, he and his high school pals
would often lose when Steve tagged along. "It was kind of hard
to take at first," Scott says. "There was always that Wally and
the Beaver thing. He was at the age when you didn't want him
along doing stuff with you all the time. We'd let him in the
foursome, and he would grunt the ball out there off the tee, and
we'd needle him, 'C'mon, Arnie, try a little harder.' There was
some friction. I think we made him want to beat us that much
more."

Gene Haas, executive director of the Wisconsin State Golf
Association, says his first look at Stricker came during a
just-for-fun long-drive contest at a junior event. "Steve was 12
or 13, and he hit his first ball 204 yards but right on the
string," Haas says. "He hit another, and it was 206, a foot off
the string. His third ball went 205, a foot and a half on the
other side of the string. He says, 'Mr. Haas, that's as far as I
can hit it.' Three shots, right on the string."

Stricker enjoyed increasing success in Wisconsin, eventually
winning the state amateur and three state opens, and made a
fateful decision. He accepted a golf scholarship at Illinois,
stunning Wisconsin coach Dennis Tiziani, who had expected this
Badger talent to stay at home. "I could tell he was angry when I
told him," Stricker says, "but one thing he said was, 'No matter
what happens, don't be afraid to call.' That really impressed me."

Struggling with his game the summer before his junior year,
Stricker did call Tiziani. They began working together, which
led to some odd situations at Big Ten tournaments--Wisconsin's
coach helping a player from rival Illinois. There was also the
time on the practice range when an athletic-looking young woman
approached. "Hey," Stricker said, nudging Tiziani, "who's that?"

"My daughter," Tiziani said.

We know how that one turned out. They got married three years
ago after dating for six years, which in Edgerton is probably
considered a whirlwind courtship. "He never does anything fast,"
Nicki says.

They became an inseparable team after she graduated from
Wisconsin, where she was the top player on the women's golf
team. (Nicki still plays to a six handicap.) When Steve turned
pro in 1990 and prepared to hit the road, she went with him as
his caddie. They're a true Wisconsin couple. Last summer he
bought her the perfect anniversary gift, a 17-foot fishing boat.
It was just what she wanted. "We were in the Chicago airport on
our way to the British Open, and he couldn't keep the secret any
longer," Nicki says. "He said, 'You want to know what I got
you?' Then he pulled out these brochures. It was cute."

During bow-hunting season last fall, Team Stricker rushed home
after the Tour Championship in Tulsa to stalk deer. "He loves
going out there with my dad and uncle and brother because he can
be one of the guys," says Nicki, who takes a camera along and
shoots pictures, not arrows. "He talks about shooting Buster
Buck the whole year. Every morning when he goes out, he says,
'I'm going to get him today, Nick. I'm going to get Buster
Buck.'" She laughs. "I'm like, 'O.K., just don't hurt yourself.'"

Stricker bagged his first deer the season before last, a small
three-pointer. "You can't shoot that big one the first time," he
says. "You've got to know you can do it." Sounds suspiciously
like his approach to golf. But lingering doubts about whether he
belongs on Tour were erased last year. "It was a
kid-in-the-candy-store thing," Stricker says. "I have to keep
telling myself it really did happen. I feel good about the way
I've done it. I wasn't ready before for all the stuff that comes
with winning. It goes back to growing up in a small community. I
never did things like fly or go to big cities. My first flight
was a recruiting trip to Illinois in a propeller plane. It was
eye-opening. I realized that I didn't know anything about the
world. That's why I couldn't have had this success earlier."

Now he feels ready for almost anything, whether it's hosting
Inside the PGA Tour with Nicki, dealing with autograph seekers
or counseling Nicki's younger brother, Mario, a promising player
who advanced to the second stage of Q school in December.

Yet like Edgerton, Stricker hasn't changed much. He and Nicki
have become Florida residents--they bought a condo in Tampa--but
he is as unassuming as ever. For example, Kohl's, a
Wisconsin-based chain of department stores, created a Steve
Stricker line of clothing featuring shirts with his name in
thin, barely discernible script on the sleeve. When Stricker
received his personal supply, he sent them back. He refused to
wear them on Tour until his name was removed. Too pretentious.

Back in Edgerton a few changes have been made. The Towne has
watered fairways, a second nine and plans for a 40-lot housing
development. There is talk of naming one of the subdivision's
two streets after the town's biggest celebrity. Unfortunately,
one is a cul-de-sac and the other a loop.

Too bad. Anything named Stricker Drive should be long and
straight and stretch to the horizon.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Steve and Nicki had a field day on Tour last year, but their true passions are hunting and fishing. [Nicki Stricker and Steve Stricker riding all-terrain vehicle] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Stricker's first wins put him in the '97 season opener. [Steve Stricker playing golf] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Ever deliberate, Steve dated Nicki, a coach's daughter who played No. 1 at Wisconsin, for six years. [Steve Stricker and Nicki Stricker]

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