When Steve Stricker tees it up Thursday at The Barclays in the opening round of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs, he’ll be sharing the tee box with Tiger Woods, everyone's favorite. Stricker, the former University of Illinois star and a two-time Comeback Player of the Year, has his own strategy.
When Steve Stricker tees it up Thursday at The Barclays in the opening round of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs, he’ll be sharing the tee box with Tiger Woods, everyone's favorite.
Stricker, the former University of Illinois star and a two-time Comeback Player of the Year, has his own strategy.
"I'm just going to try to wear Tiger down,'' said Stricker, drawing laughter at a charity golf clinic for the Illinois golf program Monday afternoon.
An Average Joe from Wisconsin who led Illinois to the Big Ten golf title in 1988, Stricker is everyone's underdog, the nice guy down the street who survived a slump that nearly killed his career. With two PGA Tour victories this season and $4.2 million in earnings to push his career total to $21.3 million, Stricker enters the lucrative FedEx series as the No. 2 seed behind Tiger.
He won the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Fort Worth and the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities, yet he's still the grinder who lives in the Midwest in the same small-town guy makes good storyline as Kenny Perry or Zach Johnson.
"I never took any of it for granted,'' he said. "I sure appreciate the position I'm in now, compared to where I was five or six years ago.''
After losing his tour card in 2005 and falling two strokes short of earning his PGA Tour card during qualifying school, Stricker rediscovered his game by hitting balls out of a trailer in the December snow at the Cherokee Country Club driving range in Madison, Wis.
"If it didn't happen to work out, I had a great career,'' Stricker said. "I was giving myself a break. I put the time and effort into it, knowing deep down I had the ability to turn it around. It's take a little more relaxed approach to the game.
"I'm not beating myself up when I hit a bad shot. Everybody hits bad shots. It's how you recover from those.''
Known for his putting – Stricker ranks 12th on the tour with an average of 28.3 putts per 18 holes – he is "becoming a better ball striker,'' he said. "I could make more putts, like everyone else. I'm starting to hit it more consistently.''
Stricker lives in Madison, Wis. His wife, Nicki, once served as his caddie. His father in-law, Dennis Tiziani, is Stricker's coach after retiring as Wisconsin golf coach. During the offseason, Stricker is a basketball season ticket holder for the Wisconsin Badgers.
"Growing up in Wisconsin, I'm a Badger at heart,'' he said. "I'm also an Illini at heart. I find myself pulling for the two.''
Stricker won The Barclays in 2007, but this year's event is played at Liberty National Golf Club, a $129-million course in New Jersey across the Hudson River from the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan.
"He's a player's player,'' said Illinois coach Mike Small, Stricker's teammate at Illinois. "They all can relate to him. He's not overwhelming in driving distance. He doesn't drive around in expensive cars.''
And they can learn something from his determination.
BASKETBALL: Before former Illinois point guard Chester Frazier turned down a student assistant coach position to play professionally in Europe, he made a contribution during the offseason, coach Bruce Weber said.
"He did a great job for us this summer, really a bridge between the last group and this group,'' Weber said. "He was really valuable with the freshmen in helping them get through the summer, showing the intensity and work ethic that we need. I appreciate him and what he did here and hope for the best.''
FOOTBALL: For an explosive Illinois offense, the goal is to not implode by turning it over. Illinois ranked ninth in turnover margin last season after quarterback Juice Williams threw 16 interceptions last season and the Illini also lost 10 fumbles.
"Coming into camp, that was a big deal for us, making sure we made good decisions and protecting the ball,'' said offensive coordinator Mike Schultz. "You get covered every now and then. They've done a nice job of throwing it to my wife in the bleachers. We'd rather have it up there than down the field to somebody else on the other team.''
Illinois returned to the Memorial Stadium practice fields Monday, where workouts are closed to the public and the media.
IN OTHER NEWS: Illinois junior middle linebacker Martez Wilson made the preseason Butkus Award watch list for the second consecutive season.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.