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Trust In Steve

Nice guys can be winners, if Steve Stricker's anything to go by.

Posted Feb 09, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

steve stricker

From dispirited also-ran only five years ago, Steve Stricker has swept to number two in the world and top seed for the 2010 Accenture Matchplay Championship, after his victory last Sunday on the hallowed turf of Riviera CC. Stricker takes over the top slot in Tucson, due to the anticipated absence of Tiger Woods.

Should we be surprised by this resurgence in the fortunes of a player who became a shock winner of the Matchplay title in Australia back in 2001? Not really. The truth is that Stricker seemed destined for great things from the time he captured the Western Open by a crushing eight strokes, in July 1996.

As it happened, I met him for the first time a couple of weeks later on his third wedding anniversary, when he was finalising preparations for a debut appearance in the Open Championship at Royal Lytham. And there was no question of wife, Nicki, being left at home waiting for a phone call. She was by his side all day, just as one would expect of a conscientious caddie.

The Western Open was, of course, the pad from which Tom Watson launched a great career in 1974. And commenting on the prospects of a player regarded by astute American observers as possessing "the whole package," Watson said at Lytham: "He reminds me of how I was at that stage of my career."  

The Strickers were on the practice ground when I caught up with them at Lytham, Steve hitting balls while Nicki looked on. He had tried to qualify for the 1995 Open at St Andrews but, by his own admission, "didn't even get near." While at Leven Links, however, he found himself being drawn gently to the unique feel of the terrain. "The bump and run shots were becoming a little easier and I was learning to accept odd bounces of the ball," he recalled.

By the time Lytham came around, there was no need of qualifying. Earnings of 925,932 dollars from 17 tournaments in the US, including victories in the Kemper Open and Western Open, comfortably secured an exemption.

Though he turned professional in 1990, Stricker didn't get through the American qualifying school until the end of 1993. By then, he and Nicki had been together four years, scratching a few dollars wherever they could, usually on the mini-tours. "During 1994, my first year on the PGA tour, we heard people say that I would have a tough time winning with her on the bag," he said. "But we always knew it was right. We were never doing it just as a novelty act. We did it because she was the right person for the job."

Though standing only a little over 5ft 4ins, Nicki appeared to have no problem in toting her husband's championship golf-bag. It was certainly a delight to watch them on television at Cog Hill, walking side by side in triumph up the 18th fairway on July 7th, savouring every moment of what was essentially a home win for him.

"I'm very proud of what Steve has done and it's marvellous that we've been able to share it all," said Nicki, who was 25 back then. "At this stage we have the freedom to be together but obviously that would change if we were to have a family. In that regard, we'll just have to see how things go. We have what I would consider to be a professional relationship on the golf course. I know the game (she once played off two-handicap) and I'm not afraid to tell him if I think he's making a wrong decision."

Their golfing links were further cemented by the fact that her father, Dennis Tiziani, happened to be Stricker's instructor. For his part, Stricker said: "I'm glad she's with me all the time. Apart from being married, she happens to be my best friend."  In fact he trusted her sufficiently to have her remove five stitches from a neck wound resulting from surgery for the removal of a cyst removed during the week prior to Lytham.

Much has happened in their lives since those formative days. With Nicki saying goodbye to caddying, their first child, Bobbi Maria, was born in August 1998 and they had a second daughter, Isabella Nicole, in October 2006.  Since then, it seems that Stricker can do no wrong on the golf course. And from his emotional, post-tournament comments at Riviera, the really charming bit is that he seemed just as warm and forthcoming as he had been to me on the practice ground at Lytham, 14 years ago.   

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