At 46, Stricker Is a Part-Time Player, Full-Time Contender
By Dave Shedloski
ARDMORE, Pa. – He came in not playing much and not caring much about not playing much. Expectations were commensurate.
Steve Stricker still is very much a competitor, however, and that was readily evident in the fading light at Merion Golf Club Saturday as he meticulously studied, lined up and stroked a 15-foot par putt on the difficult 18th hole. The look on his face showed concentration and determination.
And when the putt dropped, Stricker exchanged an enthusiastic fist-bump with his caddie, Jimmy Johnson.
“That was a big putt. I wanted to make that,” Stricker acknowledged after shooting a steady, steely even-par 70 in the third round of the 113th U.S. Open. “I wanted to be at even par. I thought maybe the lead could be 2‑under, so I didn't want to … lose another shot and be three back potentially. And as it turns out, I'm only one back. So that was a big putt. Keeps my momentum going for tomorrow and keeps me closer.”
Yes, closer. Closer to something special, something monumental. He stands at even-par 210, in a three-way tie one stroke behind leader Phil Mickelson.
Stricker has won 12 times on the PGA Tour, but he has yet to win a major championship. And, as he explained in his pre-championship interview, he’s satisfied with his career should he never win one of golf’s four Grand Slam events.
“I’m kind of past that,” he said.
He is serious about that. The proof is in his decision at the outset of the 2013 season to cut back drastically on his competitive schedule. Stricker is a part-time player, though he remains a full-time threat. His 18th U.S. Open appearance constitutes just his seventh start of the season and just his third since the Shell Houston Open in late March.
“I think that the decision that I made earlier this year about playing less has taken some of the pressure off me,” Stricker said. “I think I'm completely fine with my career and what I've done. And don't get me wrong, I'm still very competitive and I still really want to win. I still want to play well. But I'm just enjoying it. I'm enjoying coming out here and playing and not really having any expectations at all.”
He might not harbor any expectations, but there will be pressure come 3:09 p.m. EDT Sunday when he tees off in the penultimate group with 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel.
Stricker, 46, is tied for second with Schwartzel and Hunter Mahan, one behind Phil Mickelson, and this might be his last chance to add a major to his résumé – and make history as both the oldest U.S. Open champion and the oldest first-time major champion.
“It would mean a lot. It really would,” Stricker allowed. “But it's going to be a challenge tomorrow.”
Perhaps no more of a challenge, however, than playing sporadically and still hanging with many of the best players in the world. Stricker has three top-5 finishes, including twice runner-up, in his six starts. He’s ranked 13th in the world, one spot ahead of Schwartzel.
He last competed in The Players, finishing tied for 37th. Before that, he was joint 20th in the Masters. Nine times he’s been in the top 25 in the U.S. Open, including a tie for 15th last year at The Olympic Club. His best showing is a pair of fifth places in 1998 and 1999.
He has no business being in this position – except that he does.
“I really didn't know what to expect coming into this week,” said Stricker, who wiped out a double bogey at the ninth Saturday with two inward birdies. “Last time I played was The Players Championship a month ago. I've been playing well at home, been hitting it well at home, but that's home, it's not out here. But I just figured that I'm in a good place mentally, I feel like I'm doing the right thing by not playing. I'm enjoying my time at home, so it all makes sense in my mind, and I guess that's the most important thing.”
Well, a player knows his game can’t be right if his mind isn’t right. Stricker is a faithful family man who stepped back from the enervating environment of professional golf to be at home more often. He’s passed up a few paychecks, but so far he hasn’t seen the game pass him by, not with one of the best putting strokes in the world still at his disposal.
No, a victory tomorrow wouldn’t change his life. It wouldn’t change him as a person. But it would change a sliver of golf history and the history of this championship. Not a bad deal for a semi-retired Wisconsin guy.
“The major, the win would be … it would be unbelievable. But I'm not trying to think about that yet. I'm just trying to execute the shots that I know how to do and take one shot at a time and go from there.”
This much we know for sure: win or lose, he’ll go home happy.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usopen.com.