SHEBOYGAN—Approaching the twilight of his career, this PGA Championship could be as special as any major Steve Stricker has played.
There might be no greater sentimental favorite for the season's final major at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, the state where Stricker was born and raised and refuses to leave except when work takes him around the country and the world.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem referred to Stricker and his wife, Nicki, as “two of our favorite people.” It a familiar comment when it comes to Stricker, not only for what he has done on the golf course but the respect he has earned off it.
A 12-time winner on tour since turning pro in 1990, Stricker has been ranked as high No. 2 in the world. He was once a regular on the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams.
But Stricker has struggled this season, his third playing a reduced schedule that allows him to spend more time with family.
Stricker, 48, has missed the cut twice in eight tournaments this year. His best finish was 27th at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in May. He was 28th at the Masters. He is ranked 133rd in the world.
Stricker is eight months removed from surgery for a bulging disk in his lower back that was causing recurring hip problems. He said he has played a little less this year as a precaution.
“It's been a weird season. Back surgery in December—I'm nursing that along,” Stricker said in a recent phone interview. “I feel like I'm getting back to 100 percent strength.”
It hasn't slowed him down off the course.
In June, his dream of bringing a regular tour stop back to Wisconsin came true when Finchem and the PGA finalized plans to bring the Champions Tour to the University of Wisconsin's University Ridge Course in Madison starting in June 2016.
Stricker will serve as host of the American Family Insurance Championship, which will be held about 28 miles northwest of his hometown of Edgerton. Stricker now lives in Madison.
He'll be eligible for the tournament in two years, when he turns 50. But when asked, Stricker said he doesn't view this year's PGA Championship as a swan song appearance in a major.
“I'm trying to feel a little bit better and stronger every time I play,” Strickler said.
There should be plenty of people rooting for him at Whistling Straits, both inside the clubhouse and outside the ropes. His down-to-earth demeanor was born out of a small-town upbringing in a community to which he still is attached.
“I think everyone loves someone that's humble. His actions speak,” University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said.
Several years ago, Stricker's parents toured Edgerton Community Outreach, which was starting a capital campaign. Soon afterward, executive director Sarah Williams received a call.
It was Stricker—not a representative or someone from his foundation—on the phone.
“I was like, 'This is nuts,'” Williams said in recounting the call. In Edgerton, Stricker is about as close as it comes to being a celebrity.
Stricker became the honorary chair of the capital campaign and was “relatively hands-on through the whole process,” Williams said. His foundation donated $50,000, and Stricker made a personal $25,000 gift. It was a huge boost for a small nonprofit needing more space.
“Just a humble, gracious person that really has a heart to give back,” Williams said.
With a pretty good memory, too.
Joe Stadler, executive director of the Wisconsin PGA, played junior tournaments with Stricker. He probably met Stadler's parents when he was 15, Stadler recalled.
Time passed. Stadler and Stricker hadn't seen each other in “who knows how long,” Stadler said, when Stricker was playing at the Greater Milwaukee Open, a tour stop that ended in 2009. Stadler's parents were watching at the 18th hole.
“And the first GMO he played on, when he finished on 18, he walked up and said 'Hi' to Mr. and Mrs. Stadler,” Joe Stadler said. “And they're like, 'I can't believe he remembered us.'”
These days, Stricker is home more, spending more time with his wife and two daughters thanks to his reduced schedule.
This upcoming week, the focus returns to the course—with everyone from home watching.