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Late Bloomers

Vijay Singh led the way but in 2009 Kenny Perry and Steve Stricker showed up the PGA Tour’s youngsters
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

(continued from page 1)

Do Singh and the other forty-something winners inspire every player over 40? "Absolutely," says Perry. "There's no doubt that Vijay having the success he has had tells me that as long as I'm healthy, I can compete out here. Age is just a number, not a barrier. He's proven that."

To get where he is now, the only barrier Stricker has had to overcome is himself, twice. In 1996, Stricker won two PGA Tour events and made the Presidents Cup team. That was the year that Tiger Woods turned pro and Stricker's accomplishments were overshadowed a bit by Woods' explosive debut. But Stricker's fellow pros were impressed. He was long and he had touch, two crucial elements to success on tour. And he had a solid relationship with his caddie-who happened to be his wife Nikki.

But he failed to build on that success. He changed equipment and fiddled with his swing, and then he changed caddies when Nikki delivered the couples' first child. It took him until 2001 to win again, and it was a big one, the WCG Accenture Match Play Championship. Again, he failed to build on that success, and went into a major slump, so bad that he lost his Tour card after the 2004 season by finishing 151st on the money list. The 2005 season was even worse. Playing mostly on sponsor exemptions, he finished 162nd. His swing was all over the place, and not even his velvet putting touch could save him. At that point he was the definition of Lee Trevino's adage. "There are two things that won't last long in this world," Trevino once said. "And that's dogs chasing cars and pros putting for pars."

Stricker, rooted solidly in his native Wisconsin, knew that the off-season of 2005-06 was critical, that he would have to find a solution to his swing problems. But he wasn't leaving home. There would be no condo in Orlando or Palm Springs where he could migrate and practice and play every day in shirt sleeves. He was staying home. Instead, he had two mobile homes put together at the back of the driving range at the Cherokee Country Club in Madison, a course owned by his father-in-law and swing coach, Dennis Tiziani. Walls were removed, mats fastened to the floor and huge buckets of yellow range balls were stored inside. Ben Hogan once said that he found his swing in the dirt. Stricker found his in a mobile home, hitting yellow range balls into the snow.

Television commentator and two-time U.S. Open champ Andy North, a fellow Wisconsonite who also calls Madison home, watched as Stricker finally figured things out.

"You know, sometimes with young players when they win early on, they think they have things figured out," said North. "He didn't quite know what he was doing. Then when things start to go bad, you lose confidence. He wasn't driving the ball well and when you lose confidence that's where it really manifests itself. When he lost his card, he spent the winter hitting balls. He found his swing on a mat in the middle of the winter in a trailer. That's the coolest thing, that he worked so hard and it paid off."

Playing off sponsor exemptions in 2006 he played well enough, though without winning, to earn the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year award and regain his exempt status. He won for the first time in six years in 2007 at The Barclays, one of the Tour's play-off events, and won the Comeback Player of the Year award a second straight time. Now, at 40, he was finally cooking, and in 2009 he came to a full, rolling boil with his three victories and his highly successful pairing with Tiger Woods in the Presidents Cup Matches.

"My confidence is obviously very good," said Stricker at the end of the year. "I had a great year, winning three times, being paired with Tiger and playing well with him and holding up my end of the deal at the Presidents Cup. It all adds to a player's confidence level. I'm very excited about this year."

So what did Stricker get out of those hundreds of hours and thousands of balls hit from the trailer?

"What was killing me before were my misses were pretty big," said Stricker. "Knock on wood, that's what I've been doing a lot better the last couple years. My misses have gotten to be a lot smaller. And you can play from smaller misses. It's those big misses that end up killing a round. My swing is a lot better than it used to be. And I think part of that is because I went to work on that myself and found out what I wanted to do on my own, and I asked my father-in-law for a little bit of help. So I have it pretty simplified in my mind. I continue to work on the same exact things that I did five years ago. I'm telling you, it's the same things."

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