Off the course, Steve Stricker and Mario Tiziani have been close, more like brothers than the brothers-in-law they are. On it, they have been in different worlds.
Stricker, 38, who is married to the former Nicki Tiziani, Mario's sister and the daughter of Steve's longtime coach, Dennis Tiziani, is an 11-year veteran and three-time winner on the PGA Tour. He was marked for stardom after winning three Big Ten titles--one of them by 14 strokes--at Illinois in 1986, '88 and '89. After Stricker won the '96 Western Open by eight shots and was runner-up to Vijay Singh at the '98 PGA
Championship, Fred Couples labeled him "the next Nick Faldo."
Tiziani, 34, whose wife, Kressi, is an orthodontist, spent the last 12 years in golf's minor leagues, most recently on the Canadian tour, chasing a career in the game. Though he was the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 1989 at Wisconsin, where his dad coached the team, Tiziani flunked the Tour's Q school 11 times.
Finally, in December, Stricker's and Tiziani's professional lives converged when, on try number 12, Tiziani got his Tour card. But here's the ironic twist: Stricker lost his.
tiziani had never even made it as far as the finals of Q school, and he had decided that his 2004 bid "was going to be the last go-round for me." With two daughters, Alexa, four, and McKella, almost two, he says, "It wasn't making sense to be away from my family and not make much money." But then he breezed through the first two stages of Q school in October and November and was inside the number--among the top 30 and ties who qualify for their cards--for most of the six-round final at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.
On the last day he birdied the 16th hole, then hit the dangerous island green at the par-3 17th and sank a 25-footer for another birdie. Leaving the green, Tiziani learned from Donna Caponi of the Golf Channel that he was a shot inside the number. "I was first up on the last tee, and I told my caddie, 'I can't wait,'" Tiziani says. "I had it teed up and gone before the rest of the group made it to the tee box." Tiziani hit the fairway, made a par and finished 21st at eight under.
Kressi and Alexa were waiting for him in the scorer's trailer. "When I walked in to sign my card, I saw my wife, and she was crying," Tiziani says. "My little girl couldn't care less; she only wanted a hug. We all hugged. I felt a gamut of emotions. It was unreal."
Stricker should've been in Q school too. In late October, when Jeff Brehaut birdied the 72nd hole of the Chrysler Championship--the final full-field Tour event of 2004--he finished 30th, won $29,062.50 and bumped Stricker, who had missed the cut at the Chrysler, to 151st on the Tour money list. Each year the top 125 money winners are fully exempt for the next year. The next 25 players get conditional exemptions. A mere $1,966 separated Stricker from No. 150, Paul Stankowski. "In hindsight I probably made a mistake," Stricker says of not entering Q school, "but I needed time to regroup and work on my game."
He spent December at home in Madison, Wis., with Nicki and their six-year-old daughter, Bobbi. He mostly enjoyed the downtime, except when he was reminded of his decline in the Tour ranks. Out shopping with Nicki, Stricker says, "I catch a guy looking at me. He does a double take and says, 'Aren't you a golfer?' I say, 'Maybe.' He looks at me for a minute and says, 'Hey, you're that Stricker!' I'm like, 'Uh, that's right.' And he goes, 'Yeah, you used to be really good.' My wife bites her tongue. I laugh, but try to be nice and tell him, 'Well, I'm working on my game.' That happened three times over Christmas."
For the first time in his career, Tiziani got to spend the holidays knowing he would be a member of the Tour.
with sponsors' exemptions Stricker has played in two tournaments with Tiziani this year. At Pebble Beach, Tiziani finished 43rd while Stricker missed the cut. Last week, though, at the Chrysler Championship of Tucson, Stricker came in fourth, a shot out of the three-man playoff won by Geoff Ogilvy. Tiziani opened with a nine-under 63, then went on to finish 53rd. After three starts Tiziani ranks 158th on the 2005 money list with $35,733 in earnings, but needs to keep moving up because five times a season the 35 Q school graduates and the top 20 from the previous year's Nationwide tour are reshuffled based on their earnings, which affects their chances of getting into tournaments. If Stricker has more weeks like Tucson, where he made $144,000, he can play his way back onto the Tour. If not, he'll have to keep relying on sponsors' exemptions. (It helps that he has Mark Steinberg, the Illinois alum who represents Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam, as his agent.)
To get ready for Pebble Beach, Stricker went to Tampa for a week to get the frost off his game. Tiziani later joined him for a few days of practice at the TPC of Tampa. At Pebble they played practice rounds together at the three tournament courses--Pebble Beach, Poppy Hills and Spyglass Hills--with Stricker acting as Tiziani's Tour guide, plotting course strategy and discussing pin positions and the slope of the greens. "I feel as if I'm taking a shortcut," Tiziani says. "I don't have to learn as much as a lot of the other [new] guys. If it weren't for him, I don't know that I'd feel as comfortable as I do."
What Stricker gets from Tiziani is companionship and motivation. "Having Mario on Tour is going to serve a real purpose for Steve," says Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN golf analyst, who also lives in Madison. "It's like having Kevin Stadler push Craig, or Bill Haas push Jay."
In recent years Stricker's play has been up and down for two reasons: He's an average driver, and at times his interest in the game has wavered. Last year Stricker ranked 193rd in driving accuracy and 191st in greens hit in regulation. Even when he surprisingly won the 2001 World Match Play Championship in South Oakleigh, Australia--he hadn't expected to make the field--he sprayed the ball off the tee. On the flip side, Stricker is a superb scrambler, which was never more evident than in South Oakleigh, where he continually got up and down to frustrate Pierre Fulke 2 and 1 in the final.
Once Stricker became a father, in 1998, golf didn't seem as important--a common reaction among new dads on Tour. Poor play cut into his desire even more, which led to even worse results. In the four years since the $1 million win in Australia boosted him to 11th in the World Ranking, Stricker has fallen to 251. Instead of playing with the big boys in the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa last week, he was in Tucson.
"I ran into Kevin Sutherland on the range the other day," Stricker said. "I didn't say anything but was thinking, Here are a couple of past Match Play champions in Tucson. What's wrong with this picture?"
Back home they still believe in Stricker. Says Jerry Kelly, another Tour pro from Madison, "I don't feel like, Oh, poor Steve! He's going to find a way to get it done when he wants to, and he wants to now. I don't see anything wrong with his game."
Says Dennis Tiziani, "Steve changed his natural swing, and that was the start of the problem. Steve can be a bit of a stonehead, but it's part of what makes him a good player. You have to know where you are before you go into the woods, otherwise you'll get lost. Now Steve knows where he is. He's a better ball striker than he was a year ago, and he's probably better than he was in 2001. He simply needs to play because he already has the major ingredient--heart."
Mario Tiziani's swing looks similar to Stricker's--not surprising, since Dennis coached both--but their tempos are different. Stricker has the almost effortless lag of Ernie Els, while Tiziani lashes at the ball, a la Nick Price. Always a good ball striker, Tiziani has improved his putting. "Mario isn't overwhelmed by being on Tour," Kelly says. "He's a big hitter, and these are big courses. Mario was ready to make the jump."
Last month at Poppy Hills an early-morning sun streamed through the pines as Tiziani prepared to tee off in the first round of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. There was a smattering of applause from a handful of fans when he was introduced. A police siren in the distance disturbed the scene, but Tiziani seemed not to notice. He rifled his drive down the left-center of the fairway, leaving himself a perfect approach. As he strode down the fairway, he had every reason to believe that this year would be better than any other in his career.