JDC Preview: Stage Is Set For Stricker Three-Peat

Rarely does a golfer have a chance to make history — really significant history — in a specific tournament. Steve Stricker has that opportunity when the John Deere Classic comes to TPC at John Deere Run in Silvis.

Stricker won the JDC in 2009 and 2010. Only 20 players in the history of the PGA Tour have won an event three straight years, the last being Tiger Woods who took the Bridgestone Invitational in 2005-07. Stricker’s chance for a three-peat comes July 7-10, but he’ll be the most closely-watched player in a strong field as soon as the players start gathering at TPC at John Deere Run for practice rounds on the Fourth of July.

The world’s No. 4-ranked player at the time of this printing, Stricker has had his great moments before. Most interesting is that he was the PGA Tour’s comeback player-of-the-year twice — and in successive years to boot. His has been a unique career since coming out of the University of Illinois.

After leading the Illini to the 1988 Big Ten title Stricker has virtually had two pro careers. He won big early on, then went into a deep slump before coming back to become one of the game’s top stars in his 40s.

“It’s been a great 5 1/2-year ride, this turn-around,” he admitted. “I keep pinching myself at times.”

In addition to his successes in the Quad Cities, Stricker’s 10 PGA Tour victories include the 1996 Western Open at Cog Hill and this year’s Memorial tourney.

Win or lose, Stricker is one of golf’s class acts. he showed that again after winning the Memorial. He didn’t get back to Madison until about 1 a.m. the Sunday of his triumph and was due for media duties at TPC at John Deere Run at 10 a.m. the following morning. Stricker, with a daughter keeping him company, made the three-hour drive in plenty of time and then discussed his golfing life in full.

He hasn’t won a major championship yet — he barely made the cut at the U.S. Open at Congressional — so a three-peat in the JDC would be his crowning achievement so far.

“It’s going to be fun,” Stricker said at the tourney’s media day in June. “I enjoy the course. It has the same bentgrass I grew up on. Once you have success, you get good vibes when you come back. I have good feelings going around this course. I’d very much like to win it three times.”

And, it could happen. Stricker knows, though, that it won’t be easy.

“It’s difficult to two-peat, much less put three together,” he said. “The expectation level is high when you win and then come back. When your shots don’t fall into place you might lose a bit of confidence, and then you have more demands on your time when you come back. People look at you more, but there’s a ton of other good players. A lot of things have to fall in place.”

Last year’s win was an epic. The 2010 JDC was a tourney like no other on the PGA Tour — and that’s saying a lot.

In the first round Paul Goydos posted a 59, only the fourth player to break 60 in an official event. But Stricker nearly matched him with a 60 later in the day. Imagine two scores of that magnitude on the same day, on the same course!

“It was cool, the whole thing that transpired last year,” said Stricker. “It had to feel weird for (Goydos) — to shoot 59 and just lead by one. (His own 60) made me feel like I was right back in it. I would think it was harder for him to swallow than it was for me.”

Goydos didn’t fold. He was Stricker’s main challenger at the end, but Stricker’s numbers were way too good. Over the first 54 holes he made birdies on 27. His 25-under-par status was a PGA Tour record for three rounds and his 26-under 258 for the full 72 holes was a tournament record by four strokes. In his last eight rounds at TPC at John Deere Run, encompassing his two victories, Stricker is 46 under par.

There’s much more to worth knowing about Steve Stricker, though, than just those spectacular numbers. They did, however, help him become the top-ranked American golfer and a solid threat to eventually become No. 1 if Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer falter. Stricker isn’t focusing on the rankings, though.

“I was No. 2 for awhile,” he said. “Me being the highest-ranked American makes me want to text Tiger and ask him, What happened?’ But I don’t have the courage to do that yet.”

Stricker was only joking about chiding Woods. They’re friends, but Woods’ recent struggles have helped Stricker and plenty of other players enhance their profiles.

“You call me under-appreciated?” grinned Stricker, when asked about the impact Woods’ much-discussed problems have had on golf in general. “Tiger and Phil (Mickelson) are still the biggest draws in golf. You can’t take that away from them. They provide a lot of excitement, and I still tune into golf to see how Tiger and Phil are playing. It was good when Tiger was winning because people wanted to see that, but (Woods’ troubles) have given other guys confidence. Now they know that anybody could win.”

In those days when Woods was winning big Stricker was struggling. He had to do some soul-searching, and lots of hard work, before his game returned. What’s most unusual is that he did the bulk of the work in Madison, Wis., beating balls in the winter at a heated driving range instead of seeking the warmth of Florida or other warm-weather climates. Stricker grew up in Edgerton, Wis., which is near Madison, and his wife and former caddie Nikki is from Madison. Her father, Dennis Tiziani, was the golf coach at the University of Wisconsin when Stricker was playing for Illinois.

`Before we had kids we tried (the warm-weather areas), but after the kids we decided it’d be better to come home with family and friends,” said Stricker. “Plus, being (in Wisconsin) gets me just far enough away from the game when I need that.”

He doesn’t feel the changing Midwest climate has hurt his golf career.

“I had played with kids from the South who aren’t around anymore,” said Stricker, “and I have the feeling they just had enough of it. There’s only so much one can do with anything, be it a job or a sport. Living in the Midwest might not be for everybody, but we’ve (Luke Donald, Mark Wilson, D.A. Points, Jerry Kelly) showed we can handle that.”

Stricker’s goal isn’t to become the world’s No. 1 golfer. He “just” wants to win a major title. He even said after his second JDC win that he didn’t want to be No. 1 because of the added attention he’d receive.

“I don’t want that. To win a major is at the top of my list, and my number of opportunities seems to be dwindling with my age,” he said. “But (winning a major and dealing with the added attention) would be a good tradeoff.”

First order of business, though, is to get his three-peat at the JDC, which will carry a $4.5 million prize fund and one of its strongest fields ever this year. Eight PGA Tour winners from 2011 will try to halt Stricker’s streak — Jonathan Byrd, Mark Wilson, Jhonny Vegas, Points, Johnson Wagner, Michael Bradley, Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley. So will Jason Day, the runner-up in the Masters.

Winners of the last two British Opens — Louis Oosthuizen and Stewart Cink — are entered along with two former British champs in Todd Hamilton and John Daly. The past JDC winners competing again include Kenny Perry (2008), John Senden (2006), Mark Hensby (2004) and J.P. Hayes (2002).

Oh, yes, Goydos will be back, too. Wouldn’t it be something to see a repeat of the Stricker-Goydos shootout of a year ago?