The last time Steve Stricker had to qualify for a U.S. Open he was trying to rejuvenate his career.
He started the 2006 season at No. 338 in the world ranking and without full PGA Tour status. He missed only one cut in the five tournaments he was able to play, which he considered progress. And then at a 36-hole qualifier that offered only two spots, Stricker made it with rounds of 65-64.
That changed the course of his career.
He took a one-shot lead into the weekend at Winged Foot and tied for sixth in the U.S. Open. He was runner-up the next week, and Stricker was on his way. Over the next six years — his second career as he likes to call it — Stricker won nine times, climbed as high as No. 2 in the world and became a regular on the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams.
"Winged Foot was huge," Stricker said Tuesday. "That gave me a big boost of confidence after that event."
The circumstances will be entirely different when Stricker returns to U.S. Open qualifying next Monday.
This is not about a new start.
If anything, it's the strongest reminder yet that the 48-year-old Stricker is near the end.
Stricker got an early start on retirement two years ago when he began reducing his schedule. What is different now is he no longer can bank on playing the big events that have been part of his schedule since 2007.
The trade-off was watching his 16-year-old daughter play doubles in tennis and finish third at state, and watching his third-grade daughter scramble after loose balls in basketball ("She plays after the whistle," he said). He has a foundation geared toward needy children, and he was a key player in getting a Champions Tour event to Wisconsin.
His golf career is not over. But it's getting harder.
"I realize the window is closing, and I'm OK with that," Stricker said. "The more times I'm home, the more it feels like that's where I should be. I had a great window — a good window early in my career and a great one in the end. And I'm fine with that."
He already is in the third year of his reduced schedule, and he is still trying to shake the lingering soreness of December surgery to alleviate pain in his hip. He is playing the Memorial, which is only his fifth tournament of the year.
The biggest concern about qualifying is mustering the strength to go 36 holes. Since that U.S. Open qualifier nine years ago, Stricker has only played 36 holes in one day twice — Saturday at the Presidents Cup in 2007 and a 36-hole opener at Kapalua when the tournament was delayed three days because of wind in 2013.
"It will be a challenge," he said. "I'm finding it hard to put multiple days of practice together and tournaments together. So if I go ahead and make the cut here, play well here, and then a quick turnaround, 36 holes on Monday ... I'm going to give it a rip. I think I'll be fine."
Because it's the U.S. Open, his national championship.
Stricker was in the grill room at Muirfield Village a few years ago when he overheard a young player saying he would not bother with U.S. Open qualifying. The player had heard stories about how brutal a week the U.S. Open can be. He figured he would be better off staying home that week unless he already was exempt, so there was no need to go through the hassle of 36-hole qualifying.
Stricker politely countered that it was impossible to win the U.S. Open without playing the U.S. Open.
And that's where he is now.
He has 12 career victories. Last year he cleared the $40 million mark in career earnings. He no longer has the desire to practice as hard as he once did. Part of that is because his body won't let him, and part of it is because the more time he spends with his family, the harder it becomes to find a good practice routine.
But it's the U.S. Open. He wants to play, even if he has to qualify.
"I haven't done the U.S. Open qualifier for a number of years," he said. "I'm not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of trying to qualify that way and get in the tournament that way. Because you never know. Once you get in, you could have a great week and change the rest of your year — or career — sometimes."
Stricker still is not at full strength, so that's probably a long shot.
Besides, what could it change?
Stricker decided two years ago that while the window was closing on his career, time was getting short at home, too. And even though he no longer is assured of playing in all the big events, he really wouldn't change anything.