Behold the power of cheese.
Steve Stricker earned medalist honors Monday in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Memphis, plucking one of the coveted nine spots into next week’s championship at Erin Hills.
The product of Madison, Wis., who lives about an hour and 15 minutes from Erin Hills, was turned down for a special exemption by the USGA. No worries. Stricker merely went out and carded a 67 in his morning round at Ridgeway Country Club.
Then he made the short trek to Germantown Country Club and lit it up for a 65, gaining the necessary separation with four straight birdies on the front nine. Stricker finished with a flourish, carding a birdie at 18.
It was a popular victory for a popular man. Social media lit up most of the day as it became apparent that Stricker would get to play in the nation’s biggest event in his home state.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Not getting an exemption was a motivational factor. Not that I deserved one, but it’s been driving me to achieve this goal. And I’m just happy that I’m going to get to play. It’s a relief to get to play in the first one in my home state.”
The 50-year-old Stricker, who has won 12 PGA Tour events and owns 11 top-25 finishes in 19 U.S. Opens, is considered by some an instrumental figure in Wisconsin hosting its first Open. In fact, he was asked for his input by the USGA and former course owner Bob Lang before Erin Hills bid for the event.
“It was very early in the process,” he remembered. “I walked around the course and gave them a player’s perspective of it. I was just there as a player. They were bouncing questions off me and we talked about the course.
“It was really about Bob Lang and his desire to get a U.S. Open in Wisconsin, and all the changes he had to make to make it happen.”
While there might be a home state advantage for Stricker, as well as a decided fan advantage, Erin Hills won’t a familiar venue for him. When asked about local knowledge on Monday, he said that he hasn’t played the course in a few years.
“I’ve played it maybe a half-dozen times,” he said. “I’ll be like everybody else next week – playing a few practice rounds and trying to find an extra 20 yards on my driver. It’s a big golf course.”
At 7,761 yards, Erin Hills will be among the longest courses in U.S. Open history. That could be a disadvantage for Stricker, who relies more on precise play than long drives.
Then again, Stricker didn’t need superior length Monday. He took just one bogey in each round and collected a dozen birdies on the day.
“Played solidly all day,” he said. “The stretch (at Germantown) on the front nine propelled me. I felt like I played pretty smart all day.”
Andres Romero, Troy Merritt, Chez Reavie, Harris English, Garrett Osborn and Troy Mullinax also clinched spots in the U.S. Open. Romero, Merritt, Reavie, Osborn and English all finished at 9-under, while Mullinax was a shot behind.
Romero was steady, carding a 66 at Ridgeway and a 67 at Germantown. He bogeyed only two holes all day, and he received an extra bonus when he found out after the first 18 holes that he got into the field for this week’s PGA Tour stop in Memphis as the first alternate.
“I was excited about that,” Romero said through an interpreter. “It helped me play better on the second 18. I hit the ball really well today and I was happy with everything about my game. I gave myself a lot of opportunities for birdie with the putter.”
Merritt bagged seven birdies in his second-round 66 at Ridgeway after closing with an eagle at Germantown. Reavie eagled the 382-yard, par-4 10th hole to highlight a second-round 66 at Germantown, while English blistered Ridgeway for a 65 in the first round and made just one bogey all day.
Osborn did most of his scoring at Germantown, firing a bogey-free 65 to start his day and then carding a 68 at Ridgeway. Mullinax jumped the cut line with birdies on his last three holes at Germantown.
A thunderstorm delay of about an hour and the inevitable playoff added an extra night in town for Xander Schauffele, Meen Whee Kim and Jonathan Randolph. They survived the first hole in a five-way battle with amateur Davis Shore and Scott Brown.
After Schauffele, Kim and Randolph parred 16, officials called off play until 7:30 a.m. Tuesday due to darkness and rain. Schauffele and Randolph eventually punched their tickets on Tuesday morning, with Kim earning first-alternate status.
Stricker had no such drama and is expecting the U.S. Open to receive great support from his home state.
“When the PGA has been at Whistling Straits, they’ve come out in full force,” Stricker said of Wisconsin golf fans. “I see no difference in this event. It’s a big course, there’s a lot of room for people. I imagine there’s going to be a lot of people there.”
James Dent is an Illinois-based freelance writer.