Published November 20, 2014
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 2½ 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."