Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 5, 2011

Steve Stricker’s Magnificent Second Act Continues

The PGA Tour’s calendar includes more than forty tournaments, but every touring pro will readily acknowledge that in addition to the four majors, some events are more significant than others. One such tournament, played this weekend at just about the midpoint of the Tour’s annual schedule, is The Memorial.

In part it’s because of the course; Muirfield Village Golf Club is a pristine layout spread over 220 acres in central Ohio, just northwest of Columbus. In part it’s the limited, invitation-only field of top players from all around the world; and in part it’s the tournament’s tradition of annually honoring an individual for his or her contributions to the game, from Bobby Jones at the inaugural Memorial in 1976 to Nancy Lopez this year. But mostly it’s because The Memorial is Jack’s tournament. Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 major championships continue to define greatness at golf’s highest level, designed Muirfield Village, created The Memorial, and annually serves as its host. For any member of the Tour, winning Jack’s tournament is just a little more special than winning the weekly car company or banking conglomerate Open.

The list of winners over the years includes the top golfers of successive generations. Tom Watson, Ray Floyd and Nicklaus himself (he won his own tournament twice) gave way to Curtis Strange, Greg Norman and Fred Couples, who in turn yielded to Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods. But as great as all of those golfers are, none of them ever put on quite the show that 44-year old Steve Stricker did this year.

It started on Friday at the par-3 8th hole. Stricker had played the back nine first, so he was nearing the end of his round. He was tied for the lead at six under par for the tournament when he swung his 6-iron on the 188 yard hole. A few moments later he was in front by two, after his Titleist disappeared into the cup for a hole in one. He followed that with a birdie at the 9th hole to shoot 30 on the front nine and expand his lead.

Saturday he picked up right where he had left off, holing out a sand wedge from the middle of the fairway on the par-4 2nd hole. Four holes later he reached the par-5 5th hole in two, his 3-iron shot coming to a rest just six feet from the hole. When he sank his eagle putt he became one of just a baker’s dozen of players in the last three decades who have eagled a par-3, par-4, and a par-5 in the same tournament. He had also made three eagles in just seven holes, which was one more than he had made in all of 2011.

At one point on Saturday Stricker was six shots clear of his closest pursuer, but a two over par 38 on the back nine reduced the lead to three, and left a modicum of suspense for Sunday’s final round. Rain overnight softened the golf course a bit, and that allowed a lot of players to go low in the final round. Unfortunately for the pursuers, Stricker was one of those going low, recording six birdies on the front nine to mark a 30 on the first page of his scorecard for the second time in the tournament. He made the turn at 18 under, still three in front.

But for all of Stricker’s sub-par fireworks on the front nine during the week, it was two par saves on the back nine that sealed the victory. The first came at Muirfield Village’s 12th hole, a par-3 reminiscent of the 12th at Augusta National, with water in front of a shallow green that is also protected by both front and rear bunkers. Just like at The Masters, the Sunday pin placement is on the extreme right side of the green, and players are well advised to resist the temptation to aim at the flag. Stricker’s tee shot was long, ending in the back bunker. From the sand, with the ball well below his feet, most of what he could see was the pond. He rose to the challenge, splashing his ball out of the bunker and purposely landing it in the rough just left of the putting surface. From there the slope of the ground kicked the ball right onto the green, and it rolled down to a foot from the hole.

Four holes later, after a bogey on the 15th had cut his lead to two, Stricker’s tee shot on the par-3 16th was again long. Once again he found himself in a bunker. With the green running away from him toward water on the right, playing at the pin was not an option. This time he relied on the flat stick. After hitting his sand shot fifteen feet past the hole, Stricker calmly rolled in the par saving putt.

Two holes later, Jack Nicklaus walked onto the 18th green to congratulate Steve Stricker on the tenth and no doubt biggest PGA Tour win of his career. It’s a career that is in its very successful second act. The Wisconsin native joined the Tour in 1994, and claimed his first victory at the 1996 Kemper Open. But in the early years of the new century he lost first his game, and eventually, in 2004, his Tour card. Two years later, relying on sponsor’s exemptions to gain entry into tournaments, he scored seven top-10 finishes and was voted the Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year. A year later he registered a victory at the Barclay’s and played well enough all season to qualify for the President’s Cup team. In something of an oddity, he won the Comeback Player award for the second consecutive year.

Stricker is an unassuming individual who plays superlative golf without letting the game become his life. Unlike most Tour pros, he has never migrated to Florida or Southern California or some other place where golf is a year-round game. He still lives in Wisconsin, a state where the golf season is fleeting. When he goes home at the conclusion of the Tour’s schedule it is to hunt and fish until a new season on Tour beckons. Now, his 7th win since turning 40 moves him all the way up to fourth in the Official World Golf Rankings. The highest ranked American golfer in the world lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Safe to say that Steve Stricker has come all the way back.

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