Stricker now top-ranked American with Memorial win

Five years ago, Steve Stricker wasn’t good enough to even play

in the Memorial Tournament.

He was just starting to emerge from a slump so deep that he went

three straight years without finishing among the top 150 on the PGA

Tour money list. He earned less money in that stretch than what he

made for winning the Memorial on Sunday.

Five years and seven wins later, he still finds his turnaround

hard to believe.

With a spectacular bunker shot from behind the 12th green, and

two clutch par putts over the final three holes, Stricker held on

for a one-shot victory at Muirfield Village and continued his

amazing ride.

He won for the 10th time in his career, and for the seventh time

in the past five years. He went over $30 million in career

earnings, with $20 million won since the start of 2007. He also

moved to No. 4 in the world, and while that’s not the highest he

has been in the ranking, this marks the first time he has been the

highest-ranked American.

Does he feel like a superstar?

”No. No I don’t,” he said. ”I don’t look at myself any

differently. I just go out and play, and I try to play well. And

I’m on a great run these last five or six years, and I just want to

continue it.”

Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host who greeted Stricker with a

handshake and a hug behind the 18th green, saw it differently.

Not because Stricker became the first player at Muirfield

Village to make eagles on a par 3, a par 4 and a par 5. Not because

he played the front nine in 20-under par for the week, building

such an advantage that he could afford a few mistakes. Not because

he closed with a 4-under 68, and not because he won Nicklaus’

tournament.

”He’s a superstar in more ways than his golf game,” Nicklaus

said. ”I think he’s been a superstar from the way he’s behaved

himself, the way he handles his game, the way he handles people and

the way he handles fans. He’s always done that. And that, to me, is

equally as important as how well you score. I’ve always felt that

about Steve.”

Even when he wasn’t playing in the Memorial, Stricker used to

watch on television and loved the ending. No matter who won, he saw

Nicklaus waiting to salute the champion behind the 18th green.

On Sunday, that moment belonged to Stricker.

It was a tough journey to get there. Stricker had a three-shot

lead with just more than five holes to play when a storm system

moved into the area and halted play for 2 1/2 hours. He sat in the

fitness area of the locker room, thinking about the closing stretch

in front of him, wondering if he would be able to hold on.

He missed a short birdie on the 14th. He drove into the trees on

the par-5 15th and made bogey. With his lead over Matt Kuchar and

Brandt Jobe down to two shots, plenty could go wrong on the final

holes. Stricker found a bunker on the par-3 16th and escaped with

par by making a 15-foot putt. He hit into another bunker on the

17th, and holed a 7-foot par putt to keep his two-shot cushion.

”I feel good when I’ve got the putter in my hand,” Stricker

said.

That allowed him a conservative bogey on the 18th for a one-shot

win over Kuchar and Jobe, who each shot 65 in the final round. And

then came the walk across the green to see Nicklaus.

”You’ve seen so many guys do that over the years, the winners

coming off the green and getting greeted by Mr. Nicklaus,”

Stricker said. ”And you always think one day that could be you.

And it turned out it was me this year. It’s a great thrill. It’s a

dream come true.”

Stricker never saw the news conference that followed, when

Nicklaus sits beside the winner and offers his observations. What

made this one different from most is that three times, while

listening to the Golden Bear heap praise on the champion, Stricker

politely turned to his host and said, ”Thank you.”

Nicklaus believes Stricker has the game to win a major, if not

two weeks from now in the U.S. Open, then soon. What impressed him

the most was the bunker shot Stricker played behind the 12th

green.

To go toward the front of the green away from the flag, the ball

would roll off the green and into another bunker. To go at the

flag, the ball might have gone over the side of the green and into

the water.

”My only play was to throw it up there in the fringe and

hopefully, it came out and got on the green,” Stricker said. ”I

was just looking to get a 10-foot putt at it, and I almost made

it.”

The ball came out into the rough, hopped onto the green and

stopped a foot away.

”That was the best shot you played,” Nicklaus told him.

”Thank you,” Stricker replied.

”That was an unbelievable bunker shot,” Nicklaus

continued.

”There might have been a little luck involved in that,”

Stricker said sheepishly.

Indeed, Stricker feels like a lucky man these days. He became

the first player since 2005 to shoot all four rounds in the 60s at

Muirfield Village, finishing 16-under 272.

Kuchar and Jobe did their best to chase him. They both started

the final round four shots behind and shot 31 on the front nine.

Stricker played behind them and shot 30, building a four-shot

lead.

The storm delay slowed his momentum, and he had a few nervous

moments in the final hour. But he pulled through for yet another

win, taking his game – and his name – to places he never imagined

five years ago.

”It’s special,” Stricker said. ”From where I came from … to

be where I’m at today, I’ve got to pinch myself every once in a

while to remember where I was and where I am. And the confidence

level at which I play now is night and day, and that’s a good

thing. I’m just enjoying the ride.”