Growing up as a teenager when I did in Cashton, Wis., meant playing football. Cashton High's 1980 and 1981 teams went 19-0 over two seasons when I was in high school, had only three points scored against them in those games, and in the fall of my senior year in '81 won the Division 6 state championship.
At Cashton, football was king. Golf was something played at the big city schools.
No matter, I discovered and fell in love with the game of golf. Intrigued by a discarded Hogan wedge, circa 1960, that I found leaning between musty two-by-fours in our garage, I grabbed a few beat-up golf balls and wandered into our back field and started swinging. I struck thousands of balls in the 80-by-40-yard swath of Kentucky bluegrass that served as my range, and though the 15-mile trek to the nearest course kept me from playing as many rounds of golf as I would have liked, my short game was pretty good and I was a single-digit handicapper by the time I headed off to college.
It was thanks to a summer job after my first year of college that I had my first encounter – maybe – with someone I would end up admiring more than I could ever know: Steve Stricker.
I helped my dad in his carpet installation business, and that summer we made the four-hour trip east on Interstate 90 to Milwaukee to lay artificial turf at one of my dad’s friend's mini-golf courses. As part of his employee appreciation, the friend would hold a golf outing at a local course and we were always invited to play. I had played in a few of these tournaments over the years and when I discovered the prize for low-gross for 1983 was a TaylorMade Burner driver I was all-in to put that club in my bag. Motivated, I spent the month of June honing my game and was ready when tournament day arrived in early July.
I’ve tried hard to remember more, but my gray matter has long ago released any detailed memory of that round 38 years ago. I do remember shooting a 74 and thinking my score had a great chance to be good enough to win low gross.
The pro was recording my 74 when I walked up to the scoreboard and started searching for any score in the 70s. Along with my 74, I saw a couple of 78s for low gross, but nothing lower. Except for a few foursomes still out on the course, I had the lowest score by four strokes. The Burner was mine! As casually as I could, I walked into the room where the prizes were being displayed and meandered over to the Burner to check the loft and get a good look at my soon-to-be new driver.
As I made my way back to the scoreboard, however, I saw a number that couldn’t be right. A low-net number must have been put in the wrong column as both low gross and low net had the numbers 66 in them. It had to be a mistake. Nobody had ever shot par in this tournament much less six-under. I tentatively approached the pro. “Did someone actually shoot a 66?” I asked. “Yeah, some 16-year-old kid,” he answered. It would be well after college before I put a high-quality metal driver in my bag.
Years later watching a golf tournament on TV, I saw Steve Stricker’s name on the leaderboard, and was transported back to that scoreboard in 1983 where I saw STRICKER in red letters in front of that 66. I dismissed it at first, thinking it ridiculous that Steve Sticker would have participated in that tournament. However, a nagging curiosity persisted to a point that I looked up Steve’s birthdate and did some calculations. Steve would have been 16 years old in the summer or 1983. His hometown, Edgerton, wasn't far from Milwaukee, so it was possible he could have heard about the tournament and been invited to play. I do remember grudgingly congratulating a skinny, towheaded blond kid for shooting such a low number. I’m not sure how many blond 16-year-olds around Milwaukee in 1983 could shoot 66, even on this relatively easy course, but I’m sure Steve was one of the few that could. So, until Steve reads this and confirms one way or another, in my mind, he’s still the top suspect for the person that snatched that Burner from my grasp.
Golf took a backseat through my college years, and it wasn’t until I moved to Milwaukee to start my first job that it made its way back to the forefront. It was my good fortune that Jeff Seonbuchner and I started working at Northwestern Mutual Life in Milwaukee around the same time in the mid-1980s. We were both fresh out of college, and ready for the next chapter in our lives.
It was my friendship with Jeff that would lead to my second memory of Steve Stricker, and this one would be etched indelibly.
Before wives and family turned us into responsible adults, Jeff and I had a few years to hang out together, and we took advantage. In the summer, it was slow-pitch softball on Thursday nights. Jeff played third and I played shortstop. On Fridays, as soon as we could get out of work we’d hit Pewaukee or Nagawicka Lake in Jeff’s 16-foot Bayliner and waterski right up to, or just past, the time it was legal. On Saturdays, we’d play golf at one of the many county parks or other public courses in and around Milwaukee. We played them all, but Brown Deer Park Golf Course, home of the PGA Tour’s Greater Milwaukee Open (GMO) from 1994-2009, was our favorite. In 1996, we watched a 20-year-old Tiger Woods launch his professional career in the GMO at Brown Deer Park.
As our friendship grew, so did our golf rivalry. We both had mid-single-digit handicaps with Jeff a stroke or two better. Jeff played competitively in junior tournaments around Milwaukee and on Cedarburg’s high school golf team. The experience of playing under pressure made him tough to beat.
We played together all through the 1990s until I decided I’d had enough of the Wisconsin winters and took an opportunity to move to Atlanta in 2000. The miles between us did not change our friendship, and we even found time to play golf together whenever the opportunity arose. We really enjoyed the challenge of playing Northwood Golf Club in Rhinelander, Wis., each year on our annual camping/fishing trip. Northwood was noted for being the tightest course in Wisconsin. Along with beating each other, our common goal was to end the round with the same ball. Northwood never gave us that satisfaction.
Then came the shock in 2009 of learning that Jeff had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a fairly rare cancer of the immune system. Although we knew it was serious, we all expected him to beat the disease. In the quiet, dignified and unassuming way he lived his life, Jeff fought his cancer. When I visited him a few days after his initial treatments, he seemed ready to get through his ordeal and get back on the course. We connected each summer for our annual trip up north and, although a few pounds lighter, Jeff appeared to be beating the cancer.
Tragically, his cancer returned in May of 2012, and that fall Jeff underwent a bone-marrow transplant. It was mid-March 2013 when Jeff’s wife, Barb, called and gave me the stunningly sad news. Jeff’s bone-marrow transplant was not successful, and his cancer was terminal. She said that they had known for a while and had told his friends in Milwaukee, but that Jeff just couldn’t bring himself to tell me. As I tried to process what I was hearing, I realized Jeff felt the same overwhelming sense of loss I was feeling and I understood why he couldn’t make the call. The loss of the potential to enjoy life together, as we had over the past 27 years, was a black hole that neither he nor I wanted to peer into. Barb then told me that, as one of the top items on his bucket list, several of Jeff’s friends from Milwaukee had chipped in and bought him tickets to the upcoming Masters and asked if I would be able to attend. “I’ll do whatever it takes to be there,” was my answer.
We started Saturday in Augusta at The Lodge, a place just across Washington Road from Augusta National, that offered an air-conditioned environment with food and drinks. Due to Jeff’s deteriorating health, we wanted him to have a place he could go if he got overheated or too tired to stay out on the course. Living in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to go to the Masters a few times, and late tickets were almost impossible to get, so I stayed at The Lodge ready to help Jeff if the need arose.
Jeff and Barb and seven friends left for the course around 10 a.m. and remarkably, considering Jeff's condition, didn’t return until early evening. Jeff was determined to soak in every last bit of Augusta National. Everyone described the day as magical.
Being on the grounds of Augusta National and seeing the course in person is an incredibly special experience. Yet what made this day magical was the interaction Jeff had with one of his favorite golfers, Steve Stricker. To make the experience as meaningful as possible, Jeff’s friend from Milwaukee, Jim Grogan, whose brother played golf with Steve in high school, contacted Steve’s team and informed them about Jeff’s situation and asked if Steve would be willing to meet Jeff and wish him well. Through these interactions, Jim learned that the best chance for Jeff and Steve to connect would be in the practice range area an hour before Steve’s tee time.
With Steve on the first page of the leaderboard going into Saturday’s round, the hope was that Steve would get a chance to say “hi” to Jeff and personally wish him well. After all, this likely was one of the most important rounds of golf in Steve's life. “Moving Day” at the Masters, on the first page of the leaderboard; for a professional golfer it doesn’t get more important than that. Except it does. Unbeknownst to us, Steve had spent the time to learn about Jeff’s situation through information that Jim Grogan had shared with Steve’s wife, Nicki. With that knowledge, instead of a hurried “hi and best wishes,” Steve sought out Jeff as he entered the practice area. After locating him, Steve walked over, knelt, and spent more than 10 minutes talking about family, friends and golf with Jeff. It was a remarkable act of unselfishness and caring given the situation.
The significance of what Steve was doing was not lost on the thousands in the crowd surrounding the practice area. Seeing Steve enter the arena and expecting him to head directly to the range to hit balls, the crowd was initially surprised to see him walk toward a man in a wheelchair and kneel down. The surprise transformed into a buzz as the minutes passed and the significance of what they were witnessing rose into the crowd’s consciousness. The buzz mushroomed into a spontaneous standing ovation from the entire crowd surrounding the practice range, punctuated with numerous shouts of “Way to go Steve!”
It was an amazingly moving moment for all involved, and a fitting tribute to both men. Thanks to all those in the crowd that day. I hope you get an opportunity to read this so you can appreciate what a special moment you participated in and helped make so memorable.
Steve and Jeff made a real connection. I was told that during the round, as Steve was walking down the seventh fairway coming off a couple of birdies, Jeff yelled to him from his wheelchair in a throaty, breathless voice, “Keep it going Strick!” Hearing Jeff as he walked down the fairway, Steve stopped, located him once again, walked over to the ropes, thanked Jeff for his support, and told him how much it meant that he was following him.
Jeff and his friends followed Steve the entire day with Steve’s 71 keeping him in the hunt for the title. Unfortunately, Steve shot 75 on Sunday and fell out of contention. If life were fair, Steve would have gone on to win the Masters and Jeff would have made a miraculous recovery. But, as we all come to realize at some point, life isn’t always fair.
We lost Jeff not long after that magical Saturday in April. It’s been eight years and time has dulled the sharp edge of pain, but it has not filled the chasm of loss. Every time I watch a Masters, or any golf tournament for that matter, some memory of my friend finds its way into my consciousness.
I’ll be thinking of Jeff during the Ryder Cup this week and rooting hard for the team captained by a fellow Wisconsinite who helped make my friend's last 18 holes of golf so meaningful.
Steve, if it was you that fired that 66 almost 40 years ago, all’s forgiven, of course. Congratulations on being picked to lead the United States in this year’s Ryder Cup! I’m sure you will lead the team with the amazing character you showed all of us on that special day eight years ago in April.
As a wonderful man and great friend once said, “Keep it going Strick!”