I LIKE THAT mirror," Steve Stricker explains. ¶ You look at the mirror. It's nothing special. Cheap. Rectangular. Screwed to the wall. The witch in Snow White could talk to that mirror all day, and all she'd get is a reversed image of a witch, a golf mat and a snow-covered field sloping gently uphill to a distant grove of leafless trees. ¶ Your question, of course, wasn't about the mirror. Your question was, "Why, with 15 mats to choose from, do you practice in stall 6?" Stricker's answer: Because it has a mirror. ¶ Huh? Stricker has already explained why he trains at a covered driving range in Madison, Wis. ("This is home. I grew up a half hour from here in Edgerton.") He has dismissed the conventional wisdom that golf mats promote bad swing habits. ("I've become more of a sweeper, but that's not a bad thing. I was too steep before.") And now he's telling you that he's won consecutive PGA Tour comeback player of the year awards because he has access to ... a mirror?
"I check it all the time," he says. "I work at getting in the proper position at the top." Specifically, he checks to make sure that his club isn't pointing off to the right instead of at his target, which happened a lot between 2003 and '05, when Stricker missed the cut in 38 of 69 starts, lost his Tour card and fell to 337th in the World Ranking. "My swing got long, my elbow was flying, the club crossed the line...."
You'd ask for a demonstration, but Stricker has finished his practice session and put away his clubs. He's standing under one of those overhead radiant heaters, his hands buried in the fleece belly pouch of a zip-up jacket. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, he looks younger than his 41 years. He looks like a ski instructor. Or a Canadian Mountie.
But what does Stricker see when he looks in the mirror? Does he see the world's fourth-ranked player?
It's a question golfers were asking a couple of weeks ago when Stricker drew one of the four top seeds at the Accenture Match Play in Tucson. The other No. 1 seeds were Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, who had 19 major championships and over a billion dollars between them. And then you had Stricker, who practices his sand game in a seven-by-seven-foot bunker box at Madison's Cherokee Indoor/Outdoor Golf Range.
"You're overrated," joked his wife, Nicki, when she saw the ranking—a sentiment seconded by certain Gloomy Guses in the media center, who pointed out that Stricker has only four wins in 14 full seasons on Tour, and two of those wins date to 1996, when Woods was still in college.
Then there was the other question: How do you win comeback player of the year in consecutive years? Or to put it another way: How can you come back when you're already back?
The answer to either question can be found by reviewing Stricker's 2007 season. He started strong with a third at the Sony Open, a fourth at the Honda Classic and a runner-up finish at the prestigious Wachovia Classic. He closed the year even stronger, birdieing four of the last five holes to win the Barclays during the FedEx Cup playoffs, finishing second to Woods in the seasonlong FedEx standings and scoring three points for the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup in Montreal. Stricker's summer wasn't exactly wasted, either. He was in contention at the U.S. and British opens before settling for 13th and a tie for eighth, respectively. He also finished second to K.J. Choi at the inaugural AT&T National. That's in stark contrast to the years from 2003 through '05, when Stricker's game got so ugly that he failed to qualify for 11 out of 12 majors and finished no better than 151st on the money list.
"I don't mind talking about it," Stricker says of his three years in golf purgatory. "My mental approach wasn't too good. The feelings I had in my swing weren't too good, either. The club crossed the line at the top, and my tempo was bad. Not hard things to fix, but it took time to address them all." The tempo issue, for example, reflected a sense of urgency. "My thought process on the course was rushed and hurried. I didn't feel confident with my swing and that led to rushing my swing, which led to bad tempo"—he smiles at the circularity—"which led to a bad swing."
Was it anxiety? "Had to be," he says.