Fan favorite Stricker finishes 1st day with flourish at PGA

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) Steve Stricker felt the love from his home-state fans. He returned the favor by finishing his first round at the PGA Championship with a flourish.

Showered with applause and serenaded by calls of ”Steve,” Wisconsin’s native son answered with 1-under 71 at Whistling Straits. He was five shots behind leader Dustin Johnson.

”Oh, yeah, I feel the `cheesehead love’ all the way around here,” said Stricker, who lives about 120 miles southwest in Madison.

After struggling on the greens all year, Stricker used a new putter Thursday – the first time in 15 years he swapped out his old flat stick – and it provided a boost. He hit his tee shot at No. 18 into a bunker, but capped off the hole with a 23-foot par putt to finish in the red for the day.

”That feels like birdie there today,” Stricker said.

Ditto for No. 9, where he salvaged a par with a 12-footer after another errant drive found the rough.

So far, so good with the new putter.

”I made some putts today, which I haven’t been doing this year at all,” he said. ”It was fun to see the ball go in for a change.”

The 48-year-old Stricker is playing a limited schedule this season. One of the most respected players on the tour, he’s eight months removed from surgery for a bulging disk in his lower back that was causing recurring hip problems. Stricker has said he is playing a little less this year as a precaution.

His best finish this season was 27th at the Colonial. He finished 63rd at 3-under 285 at the Canadian Open.

A few weeks ago, Stricker lost his caddie, who is now on the bag for Justin Thomas.

”It’s a no-brainer. You’re caddying for a 48-year-old guy versus a 24-year-old up-and-comer,” Stricker said this week.

He found more than a capable replacement the last few tournaments in his wife, Nicki. She used to caddie for him earlier in his career, so Stricker figured there was no reason to find another one so late in the season.

While he doesn’t ask his wife much about wind direction or club selection, Stricker said Nicki helps him more with the mental side of the game.

”So, there’s that special relationship that she’s able to get away with saying some different things a regular guy can’t,” Stricker said.