For the first time in his career, Tiziani got to spend the holidays knowing he would be a member of the Tour.
with sponsors' exemptions Stricker has played in two tournaments with Tiziani this year. At Pebble Beach, Tiziani finished 43rd while Stricker missed the cut. Last week, though, at the Chrysler Championship of Tucson, Stricker came in fourth, a shot out of the three-man playoff won by Geoff Ogilvy. Tiziani opened with a nine-under 63, then went on to finish 53rd. After three starts Tiziani ranks 158th on the 2005 money list with $35,733 in earnings, but needs to keep moving up because five times a season the 35 Q school graduates and the top 20 from the previous year's Nationwide tour are reshuffled based on their earnings, which affects their chances of getting into tournaments. If Stricker has more weeks like Tucson, where he made $144,000, he can play his way back onto the Tour. If not, he'll have to keep relying on sponsors' exemptions. (It helps that he has Mark Steinberg, the Illinois alum who represents Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam, as his agent.)
To get ready for Pebble Beach, Stricker went to Tampa for a week to get the frost off his game. Tiziani later joined him for a few days of practice at the TPC of Tampa. At Pebble they played practice rounds together at the three tournament courses-- Pebble Beach, Poppy Hills and Spyglass Hills--with Stricker acting as Tiziani's Tour guide, plotting course strategy and discussing pin positions and the slope of the greens. "I feel as if I'm taking a shortcut," Tiziani says. "I don't have to learn as much as a lot of the other [new] guys. If it weren't for him, I don't know that I'd feel as comfortable as I do."
What Stricker gets from Tiziani is companionship and motivation. "Having Mario on Tour is going to serve a real purpose for Steve," says Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN golf analyst, who also lives in Madison. "It's like having Kevin Stadler push Craig, or Bill Haas push Jay."
In recent years Stricker's play has been up and down for two reasons: He's an average driver, and at times his interest in the game has wavered. Last year Stricker ranked 193rd in driving accuracy and 191st in greens hit in regulation. Even when he surprisingly won the 2001 World Match Play Championship in South Oakleigh, Australia--he hadn't expected to make the field--he sprayed the ball off the tee. On the flip side, Stricker is a superb scrambler, which was never more evident than in South Oakleigh, where he continually got up and down to frustrate Pierre Fulke 2 and 1 in the final.
Once Stricker became a father, in 1998, golf didn't seem as important--a common reaction among new dads on Tour. Poor play cut into his desire even more, which led to even worse results. In the four years since the $1 million win in Australia boosted him to 11th in the World Ranking, Stricker has fallen to 251. Instead of playing with the big boys in the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa last week, he was in Tucson.
"I ran into Kevin Sutherland on the range the other day," Stricker said. "I didn't say anything but was thinking, Here are a couple of past Match Play champions in Tucson. What's wrong with this picture?"
Back home they still believe in Stricker. Says Jerry Kelly, another Tour pro from Madison, "I don't feel like, Oh, poor Steve! He's going to find a way to get it done when he wants to, and he wants to now. I don't see anything wrong with his game."
Says Dennis Tiziani, "Steve changed his natural swing, and that was the start of the problem. Steve can be a bit of a stonehead, but it's part of what makes him a good player. You have to know where you are before you go into the woods, otherwise you'll get lost. Now Steve knows where he is. He's a better ball striker than he was a year ago, and he's probably better than he was in 2001. He simply needs to play because he already has the major ingredient--heart."
Mario Tiziani's swing looks similar to Stricker's--not surprising, since Dennis coached both--but their tempos are different. Stricker has the almost effortless lag of Ernie Els, while Tiziani lashes at the ball, a la Nick Price. Always a good ball striker, Tiziani has improved his putting. "Mario isn't overwhelmed by being on Tour," Kelly says. "He's a big hitter, and these are big courses. Mario was ready to make the jump."