The PGA Tour Champions beckons with no-cut easy money and the likelihood of contending often, winning a handful of times and knocking Bernhard Langer off the top of Mount Never-age.
Why compete with the Dustin Johnsons and Rory McIlroys of the world when you can show up at a 54-hole tournament with the fat-bellies and pretty much be guaranteed a relatively low-stress week and a nice paycheck?
The answer, if you’re Steve Stricker, is because you can.
In a pre-tournament news conference on the eve of the Sony Open in Hawaii, the opening full-field PGA Tour event of 2019, Stricker talked about the mental tug-of-war that ensues when he considers his schedule going forward, and how he’s on both ends of the rope.
One minute, the Madison golfer, who turns 52 on Feb. 23, pledged to play in all the Champions tour majors this year. The next minute, he said that if he gets off to a good start on the PGA Tour, “I’ll probably just bag the idea of trying to play in the (Champions) majors … and concentrate even more out here.”
Tom Kite told him to focus on the Champions tour because the window to cash in grows smaller by the year. “I’m like, you know what? You’re right,” Stricker said. But others have told him to play on the PGA Tour while he’s still capable of competing because, well, the window closes a bit more every year. “And I’m like, you know, you’re right,” he said.
So, which will it be?
With all due respect, it’s a no-brainer. For the love of Sam Snead, Stricker should play with the young guns until the birdies dry up. The Champions tour isn’t going anywhere. It will be there when he loses 10 yards off the tee and no longer slam-dunks every 5-footer.
Stricker still splits fairways, still hits it plenty far enough, out-wedges 98% of the best players in the world and putts like he’s 25. What’s to think about?
If it was about the money, Stricker said, he’d bid adieu to the flat brims and take his game to the Ben-Gay tour. He pointed out that in 2018 he made twice as much money in seven starts on the Champions tour ($1,196,235) as he did in 12 starts on the PGA Tour ($582,566).
But he’s made $44 million on the course – and millions more off it – in his career. It’s not about the money. It’s about the challenge of seeing where he stacks up against the very best, not the very best over 50.
“My intention right now is to be out here (on the PGA Tour), play as well as I can and try to win again,” he said. “I still feel like it could happen. A lot of things are going to have to go right, but I see some really good things in my game again. My putting is starting to come around a little bit better. So, I’m optimistic and that’s why I’m out here.”
There’s another reason to mix it up with the kids. Stricker is one of Tiger Woods’ assistant captains on the U.S. Presidents Cup team, which takes on the Internationals in December. And he’s considered by most to be the front-runner to be named captain of the 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup team. It’s important for him to stay connected to the prospective members of both teams.
“It’s something that I’d be truly honored and excited to do right there in my home state of Wisconsin, a couple hours down the road,” he said of a potential captainship at Whistling Straits. “But no one knows yet for sure. Just got to hold off and put it in the PGA’s hands and the committee that’s making the decision and go from there.”
There are a couple Champions tour events he can’t miss. He’s the defending champion of the Cologuard Classic, hosted by pal and Madison neighbor Jerry Kelly, March 1 through 3 in Tucson, Arizona. And, of course, he hosts the American Family Insurance Championship, June 21 through 23 at University Ridge.
OK, throw in the U.S. Senior Open the week after AmFam and the late-season Sanford Invitational, where he’s also the defending champion of the tournament hosted by Madison’s Andy North.
That’s four tournaments on the Champions tour. Good enough.
Stricker said he has committed to play in the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Feb. 7-10, and is thinking about adding the Waste Management Phoenix Open the week before Pebble and/or the Genesis Open at Riviera CC the week after.
Mark him down for Colonial (Charles Schwab Challenge) and Muirfield Village (Memorial Tournament) in May. Both are courses he’s won on. In July, there’s the John Deere Classic, a tournament he won three consecutive years (2009 through '11). And he had top-20 finishes last year in the Valspar Championship and the FedEx St. Jude Classic, so add them to the mix.
He’s not yet qualified for The Players Championship but said it was a priority to play at TPC Sawgrass.
“I still feel like I’ve got some game to compete out here (on the PGA Tour) and I’m working hard still to try to play well out here,” Stricker said in Hawaii. “I’ll start the year off with my concentration on being on the regular tour and see where it goes from there.”
The Champions tour can wait, Steve. Don’t start acting your age just yet.