Steve Stricker | Phoenix Open | Round 1

Steve Stricker | 2021 Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale

The PGA Tour news release dated Nov. 30 was innocent enough, stating that Steve Stricker had withdrawn from the following week’s QBE Shootout due to a “nagging, non-COVID-related virus.”

In reality, Stricker had just been discharged from UW Health University Hospital after a weeks-long battle with a mysterious ailment and was still very ill.

What started as a bad cough and sore throat in late October morphed into something far worse, something that caused his white blood cell count to soar, his liver count to plummet and, scariest of all, inflammation around his heart, which jumped in and out of rhythm for weeks.

Some 2½ months after the onset of symptoms, Stricker, who will turn 55 on Feb. 23, is slowly improving but faces a long road to recovery. He is able to walk short distances, but it will be weeks – perhaps months – before he will be able to compete again on the PGA Tour or PGA Tour Champions.

In an extended interview Thursday with Wisconsin.Golf – the first Stricker has granted – the 12-time PGA Tour winner and captain of the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team in September went into detail about his ordeal and said he was lucky to be alive.

“I’m still on no activity. I’m still dealing with inflammation around the heart,” he said. “That part is getting better, though, all the time. They took an MRI right before Christmas and it was still there, this inflammation, but it’s going down. I’ll have another MRI on the 20th (of January). If it’s gone, then I can start to do things.

“I’m down 25 pounds. I’m freshman-in-high school weight. I lost all my muscle. I look like an 85-year-old man, dude. My skin is hanging.”

Stricker said he still can’t eat solid food and is on several medications, including Eliquis, a blood thinner, and a beta blocker to prevent his heart rate from spiking.

“My heart is in rhythm now,” he said. “It was jumping in and out of rhythm from Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas Eve. So, knock on wood. And I’m on less medication. The inflammation number that they can find out with blood tests is saying that my inflammation is going down. And it must be, because I’m feeling better. I’m walking around a little bit. I’m starting to be a little bit more active and building a tolerance a little bit better. So, things are definitely better.”

How Stricker got sick is a mystery, but he suspects stress from the Ryder Cup was a contributing factor.

“I kind of have a feeling that (the Ryder Cup) could have had a part in it,” he said. “It’s a letdown, right, after that happens? And then your immune system is probably down. It probably played a role in it somehow.”

He said he developed a sore throat and a cough on Oct. 23, a little less than a month after the U.S. team whipped the Europeans, 19-9, at Whistling Straits. A COVID-19 test came back negative. He saw his primary physician, who prescribed an antibiotic. A couple of weeks passed and Stricker felt good enough to go deer hunting, his favorite pursuit. But very quickly, he took a turn for the worse.

“I came home from hunting one night and I was like, ‘I don’t feel good. My side hurts. I just don’t feel right,’” he said. “That night I had the sweats and all of a sudden, my temperature was 103. I went back to my primary and got amoxicillin, a heavier antibiotic. And I think I had a reaction to that. My throat started to close up, my lips got puffy, my glands got puffy, my tongue got puffy. It was like an allergic reaction. I was still having these 103-degree temps.

“So, I went into the hospital about two weeks before Thanksgiving and they kept me in there. That’s when the s--- hit the fan. My liver numbers started getting worse. My white blood cell count was jacked up really high. I was fighting something, but they couldn’t find out what it was. My liver was going downhill. I got jaundice. I was yellow and peeing out Pepsi-colored pee.”

Four days into his hospital stay, his heart jumped out of rhythm and started fluttering. At one point his heart rate shot up to 160 beats per minute and stayed there for two hours. He underwent a liver biopsy. He went on a blood thinner. The doctors were scratching their heads, searching for answers.

After 11 days at UW Hospital, he improved enough to be discharged on the day before Thanksgiving. Three days later he was admitted again, feeling worse than ever. His wife, Nicki, kept a bedside vigil.

“A couple of times I was like, ‘What is going on?’” he said. “Everything is going the wrong way. It wasn’t fun. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know where this road is leading to. I never thought that I’m not getting out of there kind of thing. But I didn’t eat for two weeks. I didn’t have any energy or appetite to eat. I had a hard time just getting up and walking because of the heart. I took a few steps to the bathroom in my room and I’d be out of breath.

“I was pretty sick, from what they tell me.”

The good news is that Stricker is feeling a little better and stronger every day.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I’m feeling like things are going in the right direction. I’ve just got to give it time.”

His cardiologist cleared him to travel on Jan. 1 and he and his family are staying in a rented house in Bradenton, Fla., until May. His youngest daughter, Izzi, has enrolled at the IMG Academy this semester to work on her golf game.

Stricker said he has started to chip a bit, but his cardiologist told him it would be six months before he could return to competition.

“I don’t know if that’s going to be the case or not,” he said. “And I don’t know when the six months started. It could have been back in November or December. So, I’m on the shelf for a little while. I’m doing a little walking now, but not very much. I’m just trying to get back on my feet a little bit more.

“The big thing is, from what my cardiologist told me and what I’ve been reading, is that I don’t want this to reoccur. If it reoccurs then you’re more susceptible for it to be a reoccurring problem all the time. So, you want to take care of it the first time, be cautious about it.”

Stricker won the 2021 Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, which gave him an exemption into The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event. The dates are March 10-13.

“That’s a goal of mine,” he said. “That would be fun to come back to and play, but everything is still so much up in the air.”

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