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Nevertheless, it was a good four-year run, and Deere fans have adopted Stricker—who lives three hours away in Madison, Wis., and played collegiately at Illinois—as a favorite son. He got the Tiger treatment on a smaller scale. In addition to the billboard, the Quad Cities River Bandits, a Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, gave out 2,000 Steve Stricker bobblehead dolls at a Saturday-night game before the tournament. The makers got the logos right—Titleist on the hat, and NYSE and Allianz on the shirt—but the face was generic and the doll had dark hair, not Stricker's blond.
"I was having dinner with Jhonny Vegas and asked him when he got a bobblehead, because mine looked more like him than me," Stricker said with a laugh.
The tournament's focus was on Stricker from start to finish. Johnson called the event "the Steve Stricker Invitational," and good pal and fellow Madison resident Jerry Kelly, an obvious interview candidate, barked at an earnest reporter from The Dispatch in Moline, "I'm not answering any more Steve Stricker questions!"
Before he warmed up on Saturday, Stricker banged out on-camera spots for CBS, Golf Channel and PGATour.com. The fans treated him as if he was a superstar too. A crowd of 20 or 30 gathered at the putting green to watch caddie Jimmy Johnson meticulously scrub Stricker's grips for 20 minutes before the Great Man arrived. Once he appeared—like Tiger, out of nowhere—the gallery doubled in number to watch him putt. They spoke in hushed tones. "Ryan and Jimmy, over here," a man commanded two youngsters to his side, then pointed at Stricker. "That's him," he told the boys. "That's Stricker."
Everybody loves Steve, and why not? He's nice and polite and very Midwestern in his lack of ego. Asked if he thought other players would be intimidated by his Deere record, he shrugged and said, "I wouldn't be intimidated by me." When he arrived at the 1st tee last Saturday, the first thing he did was introduce himself to the walking scorer, the sign bearer and two honorary observers, and then he enthusiastically shook hands with nearly everyone else inside the ropes.
It's a two-way love-in. Stricker, an avid bow hunter, loves the tournament's trophy—a buck leaping over a rock outcropping, symbolic of the John Deere logo. "To get a trophy with a deer on there," Stricker says, "that's pretty cool."
So too were his heroic, Tiger-like shots. In the first round Stricker holed an 80-yard wedge shot at the short 14th for an eagle that sparked him to a 65. A solid 67 on Friday morning left him three shots off the lead and at the 1st hole of the third round, he stiffed another wedge shot to within inches. A fan loudly suggested it was a gimme, but Robert Garrigus, paired with Stricker, said, "I don't know if I can give it to him. He's kind of shaky on this course." The gallery laughed. Stricker too, of course.
On Sunday, Stricker ran out of miracles. "I'm a little disappointed," he said, "but I had a great run. It was a good week."
He signed autographs on his way to the media center, smiling and thanking one starstruck youngster who told him, "You played awesome today!" After another interview session, he headed to the locker room for a shower. He had a flight to catch—the Deere-funded overnight charter to England. This is British Open week. Stricker will play for history ... again. The ghost of Young Tom Morris might want to take notice.