Steve Stricker | Ryder Cup

Steve Stricker was announced as the U.S. captain of the 43rd Ryder Cup at a 2019 news conference. 

Steve Stricker wore a grin that wouldn’t quit on the morning of Feb. 20, 2019, when then-PGA of America President Suzy Whaley introduced him as the 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup team captain at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

It was golf’s feel-good story: Stricker, popular among his peers and universally respected for the example he has set as a consummate professional, would lead 12 American superstars against their European counterparts at Whistling Straits, just down the road from his home in Madison.

Had he known what was coming, however, he might have been tempted to take a pass.

It has been anything but smooth sailing for Captain Stricker. His place at the helm – and in the limelight that he typically shuns – has been extended by an unprecedented one-year postponement of the Ryder Cup because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s a long line of golfers who would love to captain a U.S. team, but no one would want to do it for 31 months, which will be the length of Stricker’s term by the time the final putt drops at the Straits.

That’s an additional year of stress, an additional year to fret about things in and out of his control. On top of the captain’s usual responsibilities – course set-up, practice schedule, pairings, order of play, etc. – Stricker has to worry about the health and safety of his players. He and Europe’s Padraig Harrington are the first Ryder Cup captains who must deal with health protocols, masks and vaccinations.

Has Stricker asked his prospective players to get vaccinated? Would he? A player who tests positive during the Ryder Cup would reflect negatively on the team and, though unfairly, on Stricker. It would speak to preparation and accountability, which ultimately rest on the captain’s shoulders.

Bryson DeChambeau already has made some unfortunate (and uneducated) comments about the vaccine, which surely were not of comfort to Captain Stricker. The last thing he needs in his opening news conference at Whistling Straits on Sept. 21 is 30 minutes of questions about COVID-19.

Speaking of DeChambeau, headache No. 2 for Stricker is how to handle the mad scientist and his antagonist, Brooks Koepka. The feud between the alpha males – conducted, as feuds are these days, through social media platforms – was at first mildly entertaining but has grown tired.

“They want to act like little children, let them act like little children,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, who is close to Stricker and has the captain’s ear. “People talking about all this stuff that’s on Twitter? Who cares? I mean, seriously, who cares?”

The problem for Stricker is that DeChambeau and Koepka are two of his best players. As Koepka correctly pointed out, Stricker won’t pair them together in practice rounds or in the partner formats, but they have to co-exist in the team room.

“Of course, it can be a distraction,” North said. “Absolutely, it can be. But that’s where you address it and you handle it and you move forward. If they have a problem with it, they don’t have to play.”

It wouldn’t be in Stricker’s personality to confront DeChambeau and Koepka and demand that they knock it off. Certainly, he will ask them to stay off social media during the week – one snarky tweet could become the story of the matches – and conduct themselves professionally. What happens after that is up to them.

On paper, the U.S. team is stronger than the European squad. The top nine on the U.S. points list – Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, DeChambeau, Koepka, Justin Thomas, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and Harris English – all are ranked among the top 12 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Europe has just one among the top 12: No. 1 Jon Rahm of Spain.

But Morikawa has been battling a bad back, Johnson’s form has been off and DeChambeau has had a propensity for final-round meltdowns of late. Furthermore, Patrick Reed, No. 10 on the Ryder Cup points list and No. 18 in the OWGR, has been hospitalized with pneumonia and prior to that withdrew from two tournaments with an ankle injury.

Then there’s 51-year-old Phil Mickelson. Does Stricker make him an at-large pick based on one shining moment at the PGA Championship in May? Lefty has had just one top-25 finish since, and just two others in his last 24 starts.

No matter the challenges, Stricker’s mandate is to win back the Ryder Cup on home soil. Europe has won four of the last five meetings, seven of the last nine and nine of the last 12. As former U.S. captain Paul Azinger so aptly put it, “The Ryder Cup is in the Europeans’ hearts, and it’s in the Americans’ heads.”

To Stricker’s credit, no matter what has been thrown at him – and it’s been a lot – he has been relentlessly upbeat and optimistic over the past 2½ years. Amid the chaos and uncertainty, he has been calm and steady, saying and doing the right things.

“Steve is such a good guy, and this has been a long time for him to have to deal with this stuff,” North said. “I know he’s super-excited about it, but I suspect about Tuesday the week after he’s going to be very relieved and happy to be home with his feet up.”

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