Reflecting Back

After a nearly career-ending decline, Steve Stricker used introspection and hard work—as well as a mirror—to recapture the success he experienced a decade ago
March 09, 2008

I LIKE THAT mirror," Steve Stricker explains. ¶ You look at the mirror. It's nothing special. Cheap. Rectangular. Screwed to the wall. The witch in Snow White could talk to that mirror all day, and all she'd get is a reversed image of a witch, a golf mat and a snow-covered field sloping gently uphill to a distant grove of leafless trees. ¶ Your question, of course, wasn't about the mirror. Your question was, "Why, with 15 mats to choose from, do you practice in stall 6?" Stricker's answer: Because it has a mirror. ¶ Huh? Stricker has already explained why he trains at a covered driving range in Madison, Wis. ("This is home. I grew up a half hour from here in Edgerton.") He has dismissed the conventional wisdom that golf mats promote bad swing habits. ("I've become more of a sweeper, but that's not a bad thing. I was too steep before.") And now he's telling you that he's won consecutive PGA Tour comeback player of the year awards because he has access to ... a mirror?

"I check it all the time," he says. "I work at getting in the proper position at the top." Specifically, he checks to make sure that his club isn't pointing off to the right instead of at his target, which happened a lot between 2003 and '05, when Stricker missed the cut in 38 of 69 starts, lost his Tour card and fell to 337th in the World Ranking. "My swing got long, my elbow was flying, the club crossed the line...."

You'd ask for a demonstration, but Stricker has finished his practice session and put away his clubs. He's standing under one of those overhead radiant heaters, his hands buried in the fleece belly pouch of a zip-up jacket. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, he looks younger than his 41 years. He looks like a ski instructor. Or a Canadian Mountie.

But what does Stricker see when he looks in the mirror? Does he see the world's fourth-ranked player?

It's a question golfers were asking a couple of weeks ago when Stricker drew one of the four top seeds at the Accenture Match Play in Tucson. The other No. 1 seeds were Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, who had 19 major championships and over a billion dollars between them. And then you had Stricker, who practices his sand game in a seven-by-seven-foot bunker box at Madison's Cherokee Indoor/Outdoor Golf Range.

"You're overrated," joked his wife, Nicki, when she saw the ranking—a sentiment seconded by certain Gloomy Guses in the media center, who pointed out that Stricker has only four wins in 14 full seasons on Tour, and two of those wins date to 1996, when Woods was still in college.

Then there was the other question: How do you win comeback player of the year in consecutive years? Or to put it another way: How can you come back when you're already back?

The answer to either question can be found by reviewing Stricker's 2007 season. He started strong with a third at the Sony Open, a fourth at the Honda Classic and a runner-up finish at the prestigious Wachovia Classic. He closed the year even stronger, birdieing four of the last five holes to win the Barclays during the FedEx Cup playoffs, finishing second to Woods in the seasonlong FedEx standings and scoring three points for the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup in Montreal. Stricker's summer wasn't exactly wasted, either. He was in contention at the U.S. and British opens before settling for 13th and a tie for eighth, respectively. He also finished second to K.J. Choi at the inaugural AT&T National. That's in stark contrast to the years from 2003 through '05, when Stricker's game got so ugly that he failed to qualify for 11 out of 12 majors and finished no better than 151st on the money list.

"I don't mind talking about it," Stricker says of his three years in golf purgatory. "My mental approach wasn't too good. The feelings I had in my swing weren't too good, either. The club crossed the line at the top, and my tempo was bad. Not hard things to fix, but it took time to address them all." The tempo issue, for example, reflected a sense of urgency. "My thought process on the course was rushed and hurried. I didn't feel confident with my swing and that led to rushing my swing, which led to bad tempo"—he smiles at the circularity—"which led to a bad swing."

Was it anxiety? "Had to be," he says.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the best sports psychologist of all?

Only, Stricker didn't go that route. "I felt I could find my own way," he says. "I knew what the problems were, some of the issues I had." When introspection wasn't enough, he turned to his wife and to his father-in-law and longtime coach, Dennis Tiziani, who's the retired golf coach at the University of Wisconsin. (Stricker is an Illinois graduate.) "There's a trust that he has with both of us," says Nicki, who caddied for Steve during his early years on Tour. "He's always been pretty set in his ways, but he doesn't bottle it up. He can say what he feels."

Stricker can also charm. Woods calls him "one of the alltime nicest guys you'll ever meet." A cousin following him at the Match Play cited the case of a man from Phoenix who rode on an elevator with Stricker years ago, "before Steve was really known," and became a committed fan because the golfer stuck out his hand and asked his name. "With Steve, it's never about him," says Tiziani. "He has a feel for people. He knows what they're thinking before they do."

The money list, alas, does not respond to charm. To get his game back, Stricker had to work hard on his swing and find ways to control his occasional outbursts of temper. "The biggest thing was slowing down my tempo and thinking," he says. The next biggest thing was figuring out how to stay in the game, because by 2006 he needed sponsors' exemptions and top 10 finishes to qualify for tournaments.

"Steve is a process type guy," says Tiziani. "Everything has to line up." And here it gets interesting, because Tiziani doesn't buy Stricker's argument that he fixed his game by slowing himself down. "He had to speed up his decision-making," Tiziani says. "There was too much analysis." Tiziani doesn't dispute that confidence is important, but he asks, "Which comes first, confidence or good shots? I say neither. Fundamentals come first." Thus, the mirror—a plane of silvered glass or plastic with reflective properties and no tolerance for b.s. "All Steve needed to do," Tiziani says, "was walk into an old trailer in Levi's, a sweaty T-shirt and a baseball cap, and look into the mirror."

Sounds easy, but you know it wasn't. "I was having a hard time making cuts, let alone thinking about winning," Stricker recalls. "After every round I felt beat up and drained. It was hard to hold my head up high." He considered quitting golf, "but I couldn't come up with anything that would give me the time with my family that I enjoy now."

So he kept grinding, and gradually he began to resemble the Stricker of yore, the hotshot who finished second to Vijay Singh at the 1998 PGA Championship and won the 2001 Match Play. In '06 Stricker made 15 of 17 cuts, had seven top 10s and tied for second at the Booz Allen Classic. His peers voted him comeback player of the year—an honor previously bestowed on Paul Azinger, John Daly, Hal Sutton and Scott Verplank, to name a few. Winning the award again in '07, however, reflected the severe degree of difficulty in jumping from 34th to fourth on the money list.

"Every player has ups and downs," Stricker said recently. "I guess my downs just got a lot better." That's another way of saying that he has become one of the Tour's most consistent performers. Stricker opened 2008 with a playoff loss to Daniel Chopra at the Mercedes Championship. He followed up with a tie for fourth at the Sony Open, a missed cut in Phoenix, and an 11th at the Northern Trust Open. He left Tucson after a third-round loss to U.S. Open champ Angel Cabrera but not before avenging his playoff loss to Chopra and dispatching Hunter Mahan by holing a putt from clear across the green on the 20th hole. After sitting out the Honda last week, Stricker stood sixth on the FedEx Cup point list.

You'd assume he's paid a hefty price for this success—sold his soul, neglected his family, made enemies. You'd assume wrong. "Golf isn't everything to me," Stricker says over a quesadilla lunch at Cherokee Country Club in Madison. "I love it, don't get me wrong, but I'd be just as happy with my life back here." It's a life that revolves around Nicki, their two daughters (Bobbi, 9, and Isabella, 22 months) and a Wisconsin lifestyle that includes deer hunting within earshot of the golf range. "I can walk out my back door for a couple of hours of hunting in the evening," he says. "It's relaxing for me. It takes concentration, but while you're on the stand, you can let your mind wander."

Tournaments, by way of contrast, still put him on edge. "You enjoy it after the fact," he says. "You say, 'That was fun.' But it's not a walk in the park hitting golf shots. You're puking your guts out coming down the stretch." He once asked veteran touring pro Jay Haas how Haas kept going, year after year, tournament after tournament. Haas said, "You have to prepare and try your hardest—and when you're on the road, don't wish you were at home."

"I've struggled with that," Stricker says. "I miss my family and want to be at home."

Children are the mirrors of our souls, so you watch closely as Stricker, with Isabella on his lap, helps her with a coloring book. He colors one of Cookie Monster's eyes green and the other eye red.

You ask yourself, Is this really the fourth-best golfer in the world?

Maybe you ask it out loud, because Tiziani leans across the table and says, "There's only one guy today who's better than Steve. And Steve still has room to improve, that's what's so exciting. He didn't putt as good as he should have in '07." Without being asked, Tiziani predicts "two wins and a Ryder Cup" for Stricker in '08. "We simply haven't identified the wins yet," he says with a chuckle. "There's one in April that would be great." (Stricker's best finish at Augusta was a tie for 10th in 2001.)

Stricker is too cautious to echo his father-in-law's boasts, but he won't concede that's he's overrated, either. He says, "It's a bomber's game now, and I'm getting older. I'm not hitting it as long. But there's a ton of different ways to get the ball in the hole. I can get it done with my short game and trying to drive it into the fairway."

So, yes, you decide, when Stricker looks back at his practice mirror, he sees a world No. 4. He also sees clouds of breath vapor, a golf mat, a snow-covered field and—what he's really looking for—confirmation that his club isn't crossing the line at the top.

You're pretty sure it isn't.

Gary Van Sickle's Inside Golf exclusively at GOLF.com.

"With Steve, it's never about him," says Tiziani. "He has a feel for people. HE KNOWS WHAT THEY'RE THINKING BEFORE THEY DO."

"After every round I felt beat up and drained," says Stricker."IT WAS HARD TO HOLD MY HEAD UP HIGH."

PHOTOPhotograph by Mike EhrmannON THE RISE In less than three years, Stricker has quietly climbed from 337th to fourth in the World Ranking. PHOTOFRED VUICH'07 HEAVEN After contending at Carnoustie (center), Stricker helped Woods (left) and Verplank in Montreal. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK[See caption above] PHOTOJAMES SCHNEPFHOME IMPROVEMENT Stricker once again spent quality time in a practice shed in Madison during the off-season.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)