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Gary Van Sickle
January 20, 1997
While clinging to his rural roots, Steve Stricker has blossomed into the Tour's quiet killer
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January 20, 1997

In The Hunt

While clinging to his rural roots, Steve Stricker has blossomed into the Tour's quiet killer

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Welcome to Edgerton, Wis. (pop. 4,254), where living in the fast lane means passing a tractor and working on the cutting edge means operating a Harvester. Edgerton is the place where Cheers meets Green Acres. "It's not a fast-paced existence," says Bob Stricker, a native. "Things move kind of slow here."

That becomes clear when you drive into town on Highway 51 and see the sign that proudly proclaims Edgerton as the boyhood home of Sterling North, author of Rascal. North also wrote Raccoons Are the Brightest People and a slew of other books that weren't made into Harrison Ford movies, but Rascal, a nostalgic account of North's rural adolescence (i.e., growing up a Cheesehead), was a local best-seller back in the 1970s.

Things change slowly in Edgerton, but occasionally they do change. The Nunn Bush shoe factory was once the town's big employer, but the plant closed long ago. Commuters to Madison, the state capital, 20 miles away, are starting to discover the place. And with all due respect to North and NASCAR driver Richie Bickle, another native, Edgerton is now best known as the home of Bob Stricker's youngest son, Steve, a budding PGA Tour star.

You may have heard mention of Steve between all those Tiger Woods sound bites. For a quiet, soft-spoken guy, Stricker had a loud year in 1996. His first win, at the Kemper Open, brought a wave of attention because his wife, Nicki, is also his caddie. (They even made PEOPLE magazine.) An impressive second win, a Cakewalk in the Western Open, followed. Five assorted seconds and thirds lifted Stricker's earnings to more than $1.38 million (fourth on the Tour's money list) and his Sony World Ranking to 14th. Stricker also played in the Presidents Cup, going 2-3 with a crucial singles win, and starred in the Alfred Dunhill Cup at the Old Course in St. Andrews, where he was 5-0 in another U.S. victory. "He's going to be a superstar, if he isn't already," says Tom Lehman, who thought so much of Stricker that he asked to be paired with him in the Presidents Cup. (They went 1-3 as a team.) "I'm a Gopher; he's a Cheesehead. We're a perfect team," adds Lehman, a Minnesotan.

Stricker shares some of the same traits that helped make Lehman the player of the year in '96: He's gritty, long, plays better on tough courses, is a solid iron player, manages his game well and, when his putter is on, is the equal of any player in the world. Check out these stats: Stricker finished sixth in driving distance and third in putting. If you drive for show and putt for dough, imagine what happens when you do both?

Stricker, 29, has been anything but an overnight success. He spent several years on the Canadian tour and needed four tries before he made it beyond the second stage of the Tour's Q school. He finally got his card in 1994, won more than $100,000 in his first four events and has evolved from just another guy on Tour to an elite player. It was, he says, a matter of confidence.

"I played in the NCAA Championship all four years and felt as if I were maybe Division II and didn't belong there," says Stricker, an All-America and three-time Big Ten champion at Illinois. "It's just my nature. I'm a pretty shy guy. I grew up in a small town and went to a small high school. Golfers are supposed to come from the South. I came from Wisconsin, and it was, 'How can you make the Tour when you play only seven months a year?' I won a lot of tournaments in college but never the NCAA or a big amateur event, so there was always some doubt in the back of my mind. That has taken time to overcome."

Former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate befriended Stricker last year after they played together in the BellSouth Classic near Atlanta. "We started hitting balls together," Pate says, "and I'd say, 'You're the best player on Tour. You can break every record out here. You can be Number 1.' Steve would smile and be coy, and Nicki would laugh. Dead serious, I'd say, 'I'm not kidding.' Steve would almost be giggling. It became kind of a ritual for us."

Pate had once received the same kind of encouragement. "Lee Trevino used to look at me and say, 'I'm telling you, son, you can beat these guys,' " Pate says. "Acceptance from older players can mean a lot because you need so much mental preparation and belief in yourself before you can win. Steve has as much talent as anybody."

That point is not in dispute. "He's definitely one of the top players in the world," Lehman says. "Nobody really knows that yet except the players. Steve doesn't have that look-at-me-I'm-a-star personality. He's quiet. He wants to be a great player, but he won't tell you he's great. Eventually his game will be so good, you won't be able to ignore him."

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