That headline isn’t exactly breaking news. Everyone knows Steve Stricker is an incredible human being, but now with the recent announcement of his semi-retirement already in effect at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, I’m feeling sentimental. At least he’s easing into it, so we won’t have to worry about extreme withdrawals.
When I think of veterans that I look up to and respect the most, first two names that come to mind are Stricker and K.J. Choi.
Stricker is your genuinely nice and down-to-earth Midwesterner. As a person and a golfer, Stricker never ceases to amaze me. The more you’re around him, the more you like him. He’s one of those guys who remind me the world doesn’t totally suck, and there is, in fact, hope for human kind.
Despite the pain shooting down his left leg (the injury is yet to be diagnosed for certain, but sounds like sciatica if you ask for my not-an-MD opinion), he managed to walk — or limp — and complete 54 holes at the Plantation Course in less than 30 hours. He also had a chance to take the tournament from DJ and win, but settled for second place. Not too shabby for an injured old guy!
Stricker turns 46 next month, and I’ve heard your body reacts a little differently than it does compared to your 20s. Now if the same scenario had happened at a course at, say, Waialae Country Club, the venue of this week’s Sony Open, it still would be a tiring and long couple of days, but it wouldn’t even come close to being as strenuous. Color-me-five-shades-of-impressed.
Stricker is one of the few players who is truly considerate of his fellow competitors, yet has 12 PGA Tour victories, along with a long list of accomplishments and accolades. See, it’s not always true that “nice guys finish last.” His demeanor and priorities help explain his decision to semi-retire starting this season, cutting back his schedule to 10-12 events. He wants to spend more time with his family at home. Frankly. he’s a little sick of being on the road for 20 or so weeks a year.
He was paired with eventual champion Dustin Johnson in the final round of the Tour’s season opener. Stricker didn’t want to slow down DJ, who is known for his extra fast pace of play, and tried to hustle or apologized if he took the time to walk up to the green to check out the pin (or something to that extent). DJ kept telling Stricker, “Take your time, seriously. Take your time.”
Stricker even risked further injury when he hopped into the mini-jungle to help DJ look for his ball after the errant drive on No. 13. As pictured below, Dustin returned the favor by giving him a hand out of the crap.
Stricker’s presser was enjoyable and the transcript was a great read, especially when he shared his insights on DJ’s aggressive style of play and the dramatic moments on the back nine.
Here are the highlights:
*On playing hurt: “It was a long week. But I had an opportunity, which that’s why we play is to have that opportunity to try to win… I had some chances to put some pressure on early. Missed some putts there early in the round that could have made a difference, maybe not, but who knows, type thing. It was a good week. Looking forward to getting rid of this little nag thing I’ve got going down my leg and looking forward to playing again at the Match Play.”
*On Dustin Johnson’s game: “He’s an impressive player, has a lot of talent. Hits the ball a mile. But as I was talking to him out there, I was like: Dude, what are you doing? He took out driver on a couple holes and he let me back in the game.
“But that was after he chipped in for eagle on 14 and we are walking up 15, and I was like: Why don’t you take iron out, make me having to make birdies instead of you hitting it in the trees and opening it up for me.
“And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“But he’s got a lot of talent, and it looks like very little fear in him, because he’ll hit one a little crooked but he’ll pull out that driver again and try it again. And he pulled it off. Especially at 14, that was the deciding shot and chip for the tournament. What, he just tied Tiger today (for notching a PGA Tour win six consecutive years straight out of college), didn’t he? So that’s pretty impressive. Expect a lot of good things as he continues his career.”
[*Ed. note: I love that Stricker is so good-natured he's mentoring Dustin in the so-called heat of battle. Again, he wasn't giving him advice because it was after the fact.]
*On whether helping Dustin look for his ball on No. 13 made his leg feel worse: “No, it didn’t make it feel any worse. I just needed help getting out of there (laughs). I felt like I should get in there and try to help. You always appreciate helping if your ball is lost or whoever is helping. Yeah, I just thought I would get in there and help him find it, and he found it right there.
“And that was one of the shots I was talking to him about. I said, you know, Tiger or somebody would probably just take an iron out there and play it up short (off the tee) and hit it on the green and make a par and make the opponent try to make 3s and birdies to beat him. So he kind of let me in there for a second. But then again, he hit a great shot on the next hole. He’s a tremendous talent. He plays quickly. He plays, looks like without fear. He’s got a good short game, putts well, and he played good this week.”
*On the diagnosis of his injury: “Well, I’ve had about two or three different people look at it. And this started back in the middle of December. It’s just progressively gotten a little worse. The therapist that I see at home, she is thinking it could be just a muscle strain, and I continually hit balls and continually play on it and it keeps getting irritated and a little bit more irritated and it’s putting pressure on that nerve down my leg.
“And then I talked to some people here, and they are saying it could be a lower back issue, but my back feels great. It’s not stiff. So I’m hoping for the first; that it’s just a muscle issue, and I can rest it and rehab it and be ready to go again.”
*On the six-week break he has between now and his next event, the WGC-Accenture Match Play: I’ll be excited to be coming back, but I was thinking of the schedule even though I got off to this good start like this, I’m looking forward to the time home. I need the time home the way I feel right now. I feel a little beat up, and so I need that time I think to get back and ready. I’ll be excited to come back and play again, and that’s what I’m looking for; not that I wasn’t before. I’m just looking to play a little bit less, get ready and I’ll be super fired up to be there and play and I’ll be fresh every time I play.
“You know, I felt very little pressure here this week, and maybe that’s why I played well, too. I didn’t expect a lot. I had this different attitude about playing a little bit less, and I felt a little more comfortable and pressure taken off me this week, too. So I’m hoping that kind of translates like this into the rest of the season.”
*On battling Dustin Johnson at a course that favors power-hitters (not Stricker’s game): “I’ve got to counter his shots with good wedge play, good putting, stuff like that. And I was for the most part. I missed some putts early on, though. But that’s my answer to length. And I actually thought, as we started the round today, I’m like, I could really put some serious pressure on this guy because I’m going to hit first every time to the green. If I can put it inside there and start making a little run and make some birdies; if I continually hit it in there on him, that’s to my advantage. And that just didn’t work the way I was thinking, but it’s always a possibility. ”
*On starting the round not knowing if he could finish physically: “No, like I told somebody else down there, I didn’t know if I could finish 18 holes. I didn’t know if it was going to I knew how it was feeling when I started the round. I just didn’t know how I was going to react as I kept walking on it and kept playing, because we had been riding in a cart every day here. It just never got any worse. It’s just stayed the same, and it never downhills were just rot en. I keep walking down the hill the last few holes and those were the ones that hurt the most.”
*On DJ’s built as a model for a golfer: “He’s got that athletic build, that athletic body. He’s got a tremendous amount of flexibility. He gets the club in positions that people can’t get it into, and he can use that height to his advantage, and big arc to get that big, powerful hit on the ball.
“Yeah, he’s very athletic, and he’s just going to continue to get better. That’s going to be the fun part watching is what he’s going to do from here on out, because he looks unflappable out there. He hit a couple wayward drives and opened the door for me a little bit, and then he stepped up there with a driver again, and I’m like, okay. But then he piped it and chips it in. Most guys would have been pulling out an iron or some utility club in down the left and going from there. It’s amazing that he even did that to tell you the truth. And after he chipped in, I’m like, what are you doing? What are you hitting driver for?
“But it’s fun to watch. You never know what he’s going to do and he’s got a lot of talent, a lot of ability.”
*On whether the bad weather the first 3 days harmed the tournament venue: “I don’t think this will put a damper on Maui or the Hyundai Tournament of Champions or anything. I thought everything went as well as could be expected given the circumstances with the weather. Guys will be itching to get back here. I’m going to work hard to try to get back here again. It’s a special place to start the year.
*On what part of DJ’s game he thinks is underrated: “I think he’s got a tremendous amount of touch. He goes through that ball with a lot of speed with the big clubs. But when he gets a wedge or something in his hand, he’s got a lot of touch and a lot of feel. And he does those little wedge shots very nicely. Like 10 — where else did he hit some really nice little ones… he just looks comfortable doing it. And he comes off with nice pace to them. He did it again on 15 when he had to chip it up over the hill. He does those very nicely and he putts well, so he’s good around the greens. He’s obviously got the length off the tee, but he’s got that short game, too.”
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)