Steve Stricker playing 20th U.S. Open close to home
ERIN, Wis. – The farmland that surrounds Erin Hills provides sufficient testimony to the blue-collar work ethic of the local residents preparing to watch the first U.S. Open played in their home state. And, when play begins Thursday, they will have a homegrown hero to root for, a Wisconsin native who embodies the values that the state’s residents value so highly. The fact that he earned his spot the hard way, through the U.S. Open’s 36-hole qualifiers that are open to anyone from major champions to club champions, is even more fitting. There was sentiment that Steve Stricker, owner of 12 PGA TOUR titles and this year’s Presidents Cup captain, should be awarded a special exemption into the field at Erin Hills, but the U.S. Golf Association did not agree. It didn’t matter after he won his qualifier in Memphis. “I still don't believe I should have got a spot,” Stricker said Tuesday. “I'm convinced of that, but it would have been nice if they would have. But the way it worked out, I feel much better the way I got here. After the qualifier, that was pretty sweet, because I earned my way in.” And the local fans are glad he did. This will be Stricker’s 20th U.S. Open, and first since 2014. He has three top-10 finishes, including back-to-back fifth-place showings in 1998 and 1999. His wife, Nikki, whose own roots in this state’s golf scene run deep, is on the bag this week. She admits getting emotional at the ovation they received as they walked up the ninth fairway in Monday’s practice round. The cheers they’ll hear at 2:20 p.m. on Thursday, when Stricker hits his first tee shot of the tournament, should be even louder. Nikki admits she’ll have to hold back her emotions on that first tee so that her husband, who isn’t afraid to shed a tear in public, doesn’t get emotional as well. Wisconsin’s abbreviated golf season creates passionate fans who take advantage of any opportunity to hit the course. The list of PGA TOUR players from the Badger State is a short one, and Stricker has lived here his entire life, except for his brief trip across the state border to attend the University of Illinois. He grew up in the one-stoplight town of Edgerton, where he could walk to Edgerton Towne Country Club, the 5,900-yard track that proudly displays Stricker’s pictures on its website. The state’s only PGA TOUR-sanctioned stop, the American Family Insurance Championship, is hosted by him. It will be played next week in Madison. And, of course, there’s the stories of how, when mired in a deep slump that cost him his TOUR card, Stricker rebuilt his game by hitting balls out of a trailer during Wisconsin’s snowy winter. All those factors contribute to the fans’ adoration for him. “It’s something that Mario (Tiziani, Nikki’s brother) told me when Steve and I first started dating. He said that ever since he had met Steve -- and he had gone away to (college) and had some success -- he was the same person as when he had first met him,” Nikki said. “He’s genuinely nice to everyone. He gets emotional. He’s real.” On Tuesday, fans wearing Brewers and Packers caps cheered as he walked toward the first tee for Tuesday’s practice round, yelling “We love you, Steve” as they filmed the moment on their cell phones. “Him being here, it just makes sense,” said Tiziani, Steve’s agent and occasional caddie. “A lot of these people have grown up with him.” Stricker’s strong showing last Monday earned him a tee time at a course that he first played before it even opened to the public. He also played it when it was being considered as a U.S. Open site, in order to give a professional player’s input. He estimates he’s played Erin Hills about a half-dozen times. That’s more than the vast majority of the field, but may not make this week’s task any easier. Stricker is giving up some 30 yards off the tee to most players, and this week’s rain only inhibits the roll that can help him squeeze out a few extra yards. Balancing all the requests for his time has been another challenge. At one point Tuesday, Tiziani looked at his phone and said it was the first time all day that the screen was clear of notifications. But those requests for his time aren’t the only thing that has filled his time this week. True to his ethos, his days have been full of family affairs. On Monday, he was one of 12 people at a birthday dinner for his mother-in-law, Barbara. He scheduled Tuesday’s practice round for the afternoon so that he could watch his 11-year-old daughter, Isabelle, play in an interclub match that morning (it was rained out). His older daughter, Bobbi, is competing in this week’s state open, as well. If Stricker hadn’t qualified for Erin Hills, he said he’d likely be on her bag. The Strickers have been commuting to Erin Hills from their home in Madison, but they’ll move into a house closer to the course on Wednesday in order to give this tournament a more “normal” feel. “The calming place for both of us is getting out on the golf course,” Nikki said. That’s when Stricker will return to his regular job, albeit followed by thousands of fans cheering enthusiastically for the local hero.
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