KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – In 2012, Steve Stricker showed up for the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island on the tail end of a career resurgence that had seen him win eight times in the previous three years on the PGA Tour. At 45, he still had plenty of game, and he went on to finish in a tie for seventh, albeit 10 shots behind runaway winner Rory McIlroy.
In his return trip to Kiawah nine years later, it’s a different Steve Stricker who will step to the first tee Thursday. Though he remains competitive on the PGA Tour, he hasn’t won in nine years, hasn’t made a cut in a major championship since the 2018 U.S. Open and lately has done most of his damage on the PGA Tour Champions.
As the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, Stricker was granted a spot in the 156-player field by the PGA of America. But he has no illusions about his chances on Pete Dye’s wind-whipped seaside beast. The Ocean Course measures 7,876 yards – the longest in major championship history – and the slope rating of 155 is the highest allowed by the USGA’s rating system. For comparison’s sake, Erin Hills measured a then-record 7,741 yards for the 2017 U.S. Open.
Stricker, 54, won the Chubb Classic on the Champions tour last month, but that won’t help him much this week.
“It's two totally different deals, right?” he said Wednesday. “Shorter course, like where I won at Chubb, I think I hit driver once or twice and a lot of short irons (which) kind of plays right up to my strengths. Then I come to a place like this and I'm hitting … I hit a 3-wood on 17 (a par-3) yesterday. On 18, I thought I hit a good drive and I couldn't reach the green in two (on the par-4).
“I played the back nine and I hit a lot of woods. I took a lot of head covers off my woods.”
Still, this is by no means a ceremonial appearance. Stricker expects to play well. But as much as he’s focusing on his own game – he wants one more shot at the FedEx Cup playoffs – there are other things on his mind. As the Ryder Cup captain, and with four months to go before the biennial matches at Whistling Straits, he is monitoring prospective members of the U.S. team.
He is paired for the first two tournament rounds with Daniel Berger and Billy Horschel, Nos. 9 and 12 on the Ryder Cup points list, respectively. On Tuesday, he played a practice round with Jordan Spieth. One day earlier, he played with 24-year-old Will Zalatoris, the surprise runner-up at the Masters.
“We played nine holes together,” Stricker said. “Phil (Mickelson) was my partner. Zach Johnson was Will's partner, and let me just say, Phil did a lot of talking. So, when Phil does a lot of talking, that means that usually he's playing well, and him and I beat up on Zach and Will a little bit. So that was good. And it was good just to be out with all three of those guys really.
“(Zalatoris’) game is strong. He hits it a long way. He's got great imagination. I was talking to his coach a little bit and yeah, it's a guy if he continues to play well would be a great fit for Whistling Straits.”
Stricker touched on a number of other subjects in a 30-minute pre-tournament news conference.
On his desire to have Tiger Woods be a part of the Ryder Cup team as an assistant captain:
“I've talked to him. I don't know if we are there yet to commit to him being there. He's still got a lot going on. His spirits are great, though, as of late. We were on a Zoom call with him just this last week and he seems like he's in a better place. Like I said, though, he's still got some ways to go. But yeah, I'd love to have him there. Who wouldn't, right? … He was an assistant captain of mine in 2017 on the Presidents Cup and he was unbelievable. He would do anything for you and he's totally, totally vested in the situation and the process and almost to the point of he's on it early and so much, it's like, dude, we've still got months to go yet. I'd love to have him be there if it's at all possible.”
On how he’ll set up Whistling Straits for the matches:
“I was up there last fall and I've been up there this spring. We've made some tweaks, and I'm sure everybody knows what they are going to be. I'm not going to get into that part of it. We did some things to kind of enhance the benefit towards our side just like they do when we go over to Europe and play their side. It's minor little things. It's not going to change the way the course plays dramatically. To be quite honest, it's going to be I think similar to (the Ocean Course), so I'm interested in watching this week and watching the players this week who play well here because it's kind of got a very similar feel.”
On his schedule over the next three months (in addition to the American Family Insurance Championship, the PGA Tour Champions event he hosts June 11-13 at University Ridge in Madison):
“I’m here this week and then I think it's Rocket Mortgage (July 1-4), maybe Travelers (June 24-27). John Deere (July 8-11), I'm going to play this year instead of the U.S. Senior Open. Wyndham (Aug. 12-15), probably. Maybe even go to one of the opposite-field events out there. So, I'll hopefully get in about four more after this one to try to sneak in the (FedEx Cup) playoffs.”
On the difficult decision between playing in the U.S. Senior Open as the defending champion or returning to the John Deere Classic, which he won in three consecutive years (2009-’11):
“Yeah, it was a big decision. But I'm excited to go back to John Deere. It's a special place for me, and they have always treated me so well. They ask each and every year if I'm going to come back and play even when I'm in my 50s, so they want me to come back and play, which is always nice, and so it's a tournament I can hop in my car and drive down the road and play, and a course that means a lot to me.”
On the responsibility of being the U.S. Ryder Cup captain:
“It's a big responsibility, but I've grasped it with a gratitude and a humbleness. I'm excited to do it. It's in my home state of Wisconsin. The Ryder Cup has meant a lot to me over the years. I've been on one of the winning teams in 2008, which was a thrill. A couple of the other ones we could have won. It's an unbelievable week. And to be part of it, no matter how you're part of it, is special. I'm just so lucky to be able to be the captain, especially in Wisconsin. I owe a lot to the PGA for giving me that opportunity and my peers for thinking of me to be the captain. I'm excited. I wish we would have played it already but I'm looking forward to September and that opportunity to win the Cup and bring it back home.”