It took Steve Stricker 30 years and more than 500 tournament starts as a professional golfer, including 481 on PGA Tour-sanctioned tours, for the Madison golfer to enjoy the walk he enjoyed Monday in Birmingham, Ala.
The Madison golfer kicked off a special major championship week by winning his first career major of any kind, shooting a 4-under-par 68 to finish off the rain-delayed Regions Tradition Championship at Greystone Golf & Country Club with a six-stroke victory over three golfers. The 52-year-old Stricker made a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 3 and chipped in for birdie on No. 4 to double the two-stroke lead he took into the round and never looked back.
At 18-under 270 for the 72-hole event, Stricker easily outdistanced playing partner David Toms (72), Billy Andrade (72) and Paul Goydos (70) to claim the first of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions. Bernhard Langer, a 10-time major championship winner on the senior circuit, struggled to a 75 in the final round and finished in a tie for five-way tie for sixth place.
"This is special," Stricker told Golf Channel as he fought back tears following his milestone victory. "I was never able to win one of these on the regular tour ... and it means a lot. We work hard and we try to do the right things and work on my game and come out here hoping to play well and hoping to win. But it's tough out here; these guys play well. I feel more pressure, at times, to perform than I do on the regular tour. I think that's just because I put a lot of expectations on myself out here — and (on the PGA Tour) — but it's hard. And to finally get this one means a lot."
The victory came at the start of a big week for Stricker.
The 2020 Ryder Cup captain will play in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y., starting Thursday. The PGA Championship gave Stricker his best finish in 72 major championship starts on the PGA Tour in 1998 when he finished second to Vijay Singh at Sahalee CC near Seattle.
Monday looked like vintage Stricker.
He might not have been spectacular, but he was solid. He hit nine of 13 fairways and 13 of 18 greens during the final round and — for the third time in four days — didn't have a bogey on his scorecard.
"I knew I had a five- or six-shot lead at the turn," Stricker told reporters afterward. "I got off to a good start. (I) could have made a couple more putts, but just my goal was not to make a mistake today, not to make a bogey, and I did that. One bogey for the week, which I'm very proud of. I figured if I could shoot 3- or 4-under it's going to put the pressure on somebody else to shoot 6 or 7 or 8 under. That was my goal (Monday)."
His other goal, Stricker revealed afterward, was to stay ahead of Langer.
Often seen as the golfer most capable of enjoying the kind of dominant run the German has enjoyed since turning 50 in 2007. Langer has won 39 times on PGA Tour Champions and captured the season-long Charles Schwab Cup points competition eight times, including last year at age 61.
"I mean, he's been such a dominant force out here on the Champions Tour," Stricker said. "(He's) someone that we all look up to and idolize. He just handles himself with such class and grace and (is) such a true gentleman of the game. He didn't have his best stuff (Monday). I thought he would come at me a little more than what he did, but ... I wanted to win and I wanted to beat him and I wanted to beat everybody. That was my motivating factor."
Stricker, the runner-up to Miguel Angel Jiménez a year ago in this event, did just that, earning his fourth PGA Tour Champions win in 18 career starts.
As recently as 2017, when Stricker recorded his two most recent top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, or 2016, when Stricker placed fourth at The Open Championship, many believed the ageless Edgerton native could still contend in a major championship. He has struggled to put together four good rounds on the regular tour over the last 18 months, but — with new shafts in his clubs and new confidence with the putter — Stricker showed the last five days that he can still be a major contender, if only against guys his age.
"Nothing can compare to that, I think, winning a major out on the regular tour," Stricker said. "But to win one out here, this is the next level, I guess. To show myself that I'm able to handle the heat down the end on the last day ... I hit some really quality shots (Monday) so I'll take a lot from that."