Bobbi Stricker facing camera.jpg

Bobbi Stricker at University Ridge, her home away from home.

MADISON – Bobbi Stricker played four years of double tennis at Waunakee High School before deciding to put down her racket and concentrate on golf. No surprise there. She’d been around the game her entire life.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Though she had played virtually no tournament golf between the ages of 14 and 17 – the prep girls’ golf and tennis seasons overlap in the fall – she wanted to try to play college golf.

And not just small-time college golf, but NCAA Division 1 golf at the University of Wisconsin.

If it were anyone else, Stricker’s skimpy golf resume would have been a non-starter. Who plays any sport at the top collegiate level without having played that sport in high school? There are few, if any, precedents in the modern era of Division 1 recruiting and roster-building.

Then again, how do you say no to Steve Stricker’s daughter?

Her father hasn’t just been one of the best players in the world over the last 20 years. He’s also a pillar of the Madison community, with deep ties to the university (even though he’s an Illinois grad). The American Family Insurance Championship, a PGA Tour Champions event he helped launch and hosts at University Ridge – UW’s home course – has raised $4.7 million for charity in three years. He’s the 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. If he ran for mayor, he might win in a landslide.

But for Badgers coach Todd Oehrlein, accepting Bobbi as a walk-on could have been worse than awkward. It could have raised questions about Oehrlein’s judgment and exposed Bobbi as a golfer unprepared for the level of competition, her spot on the team granted solely on the basis of her last name. At Wisconsin, there would be nowhere to hide.

“Yeah, we were all concerned about those things,” Steve Stricker says. “I talked to Todd about it. He was concerned, too. But I had a feeling deep down that she had the potential to help the team moving forward. I thought maybe by her junior year of eligibility she could help the team a little bit.

“She’s beaten my prediction by a year.”

Bobbi recently completed her sophomore year of eligibility by finishing in a tie for 38th place at the Big Ten Championship, a performance that included an even-par 72 in the final round – the first time her score counted toward the Badgers’ team total. Prior to the Big Ten, she’d played in only a handful of college tournaments, and always as an individual.

In three years, Stricker went from a walk-on with extremely limited experience and a corresponding naivete – she admits she had to learn how to practice productively – to contributing in the biggest tournament of the season. Let that sink in for a minute.

“The amount of growth that she’s shown is remarkable,” Oehrlein says. “It’s been incredible. It’s been really fun to be part of and watch and see. It’s really a remarkable story.”

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It’s not as though Bobbi never played golf before she went off to college. When you grow up in the Stricker-Tiziani clan, that’s just part of the deal.

Her mother, Nicki, is a three-time Madison City Women’s Tournament champion and played at the UW, finishing fourth in the Big Ten as a senior. She also caddied for Steve on the PGA Tour and still carries his bag on occasion.

Her uncle, Mario Tiziani, played on the PGA Tour and is a former State Open champion and Steve’s agent. Her grandfather, Dennis Tiziani, is the former men’s and women’s coach at Wisconsin and is Steve’s swing coach. And Dennis’ brother, Larry Tiziani, is a sought-after teacher and, like Steve and Dennis, a member of the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame.

“It’s kind of a language we all speak,” Nicki says. “It might be a little different dialect each time, but there’s different things she can pull from each of us.”

Steve is Bobbi’s primary swing coach, but she’s surrounded by golf expertise and can turn in any direction for help.

“I could go down a whole list of family members over the past three years who have given me insight,” she says. “I get a bunch of pieces from different people. Mostly my dad, though. I can really relate to his teaching style. He’s a feel person, like, ‘This is how it feels, this is what it’s supposed to look like.’ I need to see it and feel it and he’s the same way.

“Being a guy is different, so that’s where I seek out my mom. How to get your power is different with girls and guys. She’s very knowledgeable. I’ve gotten a lot of insight from her with the swing but also a lot of how you should be mentally. She’s very good in that department.

“I lean on my grandpa. He’s a different kind of teacher. I like to go to him to be reminded of things. I’ve gotten some things from Mario, which is really cool because he’s a completely different person and teacher, too. And, yeah, Larry, too. All of them. It’s so cool. I’m so blessed to have them.”

Bobbi had played some junior golf at ages 12 and 13 and planned to play in high school. But most of her friends were tennis players and they talked her into going out for the tennis team at Waunakee.

After her sophomore year, she told her tennis coach that she was going to go out for golf as a junior. She already was thinking about pursuing golf in college and needed to get her competitive feet wet. But then she changed her mind again and stayed with tennis.

“I had so many really close friends on the tennis team,” she says.” I was like, ‘I’ve had so much fun. These people are so awesome. I just can’t walk away.’”

In hindsight, tennis helped lay the foundation for Bobbi’s golf game. Though the tennis stroke and golf swing are different movements, both require hand-eye coordination. There are power and finesse components to both sports, too. Most importantly, though, she learned how to compete.

“She played doubles and that’s about not letting your partner down and stepping up when you have to not only for yourself but for your partner,” Steve says. “There’s a lot of pressure in that.”

It wasn’t until after she finished her senior season with a fifth-place finish at the WIAA state tournament with partner Bailey Chorney that Bobbi started working hard on her golf game.

“I literally dropped my racket and went all-in on golf,” she says. “I had a lot of support and a lot of people telling me, ‘You can do this if you really put your mind to it and you work at it like you did at tennis.’ I think my mentality was whatever happens, happens. I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself when I started. I was like, this is so much fun. I’m going to work just as hard as I can and see where it takes me.”

Perhaps she skipped some steps of development by not playing a heavy junior schedule, but Nicki says that wasn’t necessarily a negative.

“There’s not a lot of chatter in her head,” she says. “Maybe not having scars from junior golf … for her, it’s worked. It’s not what you would normally see, but I think she has found the positives in that. She was ready to go all in. It wasn’t, ‘I need to do this because I’m a Stricker.’ It was her choice and hers alone.”

Steve and Nicki had talked to Oehrlein about the possibility of Bobbi joining the UW team. He’d seen her swing a club and thought she had potential. It was a gamble, but because she would walk on and redshirt, he wouldn’t have to play her right away, if ever. There were no guarantees.

“She knew what she was doing on a golf course, even though she didn’t have a competitive history,” Oehrlein says. “There’s an athletic background. She knows how to compete. So much of development is access to great instruction and facilities, knowing what good golf looks like. Well, she’s got all that. I just thought she had unbelievable potential.”

Stricker worked hard and made steady improvement, mostly behind the scenes. As a redshirt sophomore, she played in only two events in the 2017-18 season, both as an individual. Her stroke average was 79.0 – respectable but a long way from being competitive.

Her breakthrough occurred last summer, when she fired a 66 – by far her best-ever score – in the first round of the Badger Mutual Insurance Women’s Amateur at Brown Deer Park.

“I did not see that coming,” she says. “I literally made every putt that day. Everything went in. My mom was caddying for me. I made a bomb on No. 10 and I remember looking at her and saying, ‘What is going on? Everything’s going in.’ She said, ‘Keep going. They’re supposed to go in. That’s what you’re aiming for.’ I was in the zone and it was really fun.”

The next day, not so much. Stricker shot a nervous 76 – telling Nicki over the last couple holes, “I want this to be over” – but managed to hold on for a two-shot victory.

It was a big step in her development and crucial for her confidence. The victory got her an exemption into the PHC Classic, a Symetra Tour event at Brown Deer. She played alongside young professionals, many of whom had exceptional college careers. Though she shot 77-73 and missed the cut, it was another valuable learning experience.

Back at Wisconsin for her redshirt junior year, Stricker played in three events as an individual, finishing no higher than 65th. But before team qualifying for the Big Ten last month, she told Nicki, “I am going to make this trip.” With six girls playing for two openings in the lineup, Stricker rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Blackhawk CC to earn the last spot by one shot.

“She’s got an uncanny ability to make a clutch putt when she has to,” Steve says. “If she has to hit a shot, it seems like she will. If it’s a tough shot or a difficult shot, I’ve seen her step up and do it. That kind of brings me back to tennis, when she had to serve to win a game, or if you miss your first serve you’ve got to get your second one in.”

At 5 foot 4, Bobbi is not overly long off the tee, but she’s long enough, hitting her driver 230 to 235 yards. A strength and conditioning program has helped her gain power and speed and she says she regularly out-drives her mom. Apparently, that’s a bone of contention.

“I got a new driver over the winter and she’s not hitting it past me anymore,” Nicki says, her competitive fire smoldering. “All is well in my world.”

If there’s a weakness in Bobbi’s game, it’s her pitching and chipping. She needs to improve with her scoring clubs around the greens. But she’s a good putter and can get hot with the flat stick. That might be a genetic gift, given that her father is one of the best putters in the world. Oehrlein says he sees some similarities in the stroke mechanics.

The Strickers have a putting green in their basement and Bobbi has beaten Steve in putting games on occasion. “Does he like it? Probably not,” she says. “I talk a lot of smack.”

“Yeah, I tell her I don’t putt the way I used to,” Steve says with a laugh.

Bobbi has two years of eligibility left at Wisconsin and should continue to improve. She has a good work ethic and the best possible role models and support system.

“I think there’s more in there,” Oehrlein says. “It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years.”

A journalism major, Bobbi is interested in pursuing a job in communications after she graduates, possibly with the PGA Tour.

Lately, though, she’s had another idea, one she calls “way out there.” But it’s percolating. She might be leaning, just a little bit, toward seeing how far she can go in golf.

“This winter, I was like, ‘Dad, what if I took one summer after the five years that I’ve been working so hard at this and just like see what I can do?’” she says. “He was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’ So, I’ve been kind of thinking about that. I would only do it for one year, but I think it would be really cool to see just how I stack up, you know?”

garyd@killarneygolfmedia.com

Gary has covered golf in Wisconsin since 1980 and is a multiple award winner in the GWAA writing contest. He was inducted into the WSGA Hall of Fame in 2017 and joined Wisconsin.Golf in 2018 after a distinguished career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.