If this were a normal year, the U.S. Open would have been played in June and Steve Stricker of Madison would be getting ready to lead Team USA in the Ryder Cup next week at Whistling Straits.
Of course, we all know what the coronavirus did to “normal.”
The U.S. Open, postponed for three months by COVID-19, is instead being held this week without spectators at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. And the 2020 Ryder Cup is now the 2021 Ryder Cup.
“It’s been months already since we made the decision to postpone, so I’m kind of past it,” Stricker said last week. “It’s kind of on my back (burner) now and I’m kind of thinking about playing a little bit more. But, yeah, it will be hard not to think about that week where we should be, playing for the Ryder Cup. I’m just hoping that next September we’re back to normal and having a Ryder Cup the way it should be played – with fans.”
Stricker has more pressing concerns at the moment. As the oldest man (53) in the 144-player U.S. Open field, he’s got to figure out a way to navigate the West Course at Winged Foot.
At 7,477 yards, and with a par of 70, Winged Foot is brutishly long. The rough is exceedingly deep and the greens are, well, U.S. Open fast. A.W. Tillinghast’s masterpiece has played host to the championship five times and the cumulative winning score is 16-over.
Stricker qualified by virtue of his victory in the 2019 U.S. Senior Open. In 10 starts on the PGA Tour in 2020, he has just one top-25 finish (T-18 at the Memorial) and his driving distance average of 278.6 yards would have ranked near the bottom if he’d played enough official rounds.
He’s spent much of the season fighting his way out of some bad habits he picked up while playing numerous rounds in Florida earlier this year – when most of the nation was on lockdown because of the pandemic – with his wife, Nicki, and daughters Bobbi and Izzi.
“I wasn’t paying attention as much as I normally do when I go out to practice and play,” he said. “I’ve had to kind of adjust my thinking when I go out there and play with the kids. I still watch them and try to help them, but I really have to pay attention to what I’m doing because I got into some ‘I don’t care’ habits … and that’s not good when you practice that way because it kind of leads into your play.”
Still, experience, patience and a great short game matter at the U.S. Open and Stricker checks those boxes. Though he’s never won the Open, he has an excellent track record – 19 made cuts in 21 starts, 14 top-25 finishes and four top-10s. He has finished among the top 20 in each of his previous seven starts.
And the last time the U.S. Open was held at Winged Foot, in 2006, Stricker tied for sixth.
Though he wouldn’t exactly be a betting favorite – no man older than 45 (Hale Irwin, 1990) has ever won the U.S. Open – it would not be surprising to see Stricker make the cut and beat plenty of players half his age.
He is scheduled to tee off at 7:18 a.m. Thursday and 12:38 p.m. Friday (both times Central). He’ll be playing with Ian Poulter of England, an old Ryder Cup adversary, and Patrick Cantlay of Jupiter, Fla., who could well be on the U.S. Ryder Cup team next September.