The Comeback

IMG’s Mark Steinberg, who manages number-one ranked Tiger Woods and former number-one Annika Sorenstam, might want to consider getting his Ari Gold on and shopping around the movie rights (Matt Damon, anyone?) for the story of another one of his clients, Steve Stricker (interestingly, Steinberg and Stricker are former college roommates from their days at the University of Illinois)., one of the premier golf blogs today (their equipment reviews put Golf Digest to shame, in my opinion), recaps Stricker’s comeback from the depths of golfing oblivion (literally the cramped confines of a three-sided mobile home at the Cherokee Country Club in Madison, Wisconsin) in blogger George Promenschenkel’s “Nine Holes with Steve Stricker.”

Stricker’s story underscores just how fickle the life of a professional golfer can be, and just how easily a player, seemingly destined for greatness, can unceremoniously fall out of the public eye and off the PGA Tour. The former two-time All American (1988-89) turned pro in 1990 and finally burst onto the Tour’s stage in 1996, when he won both the Kemper and the Western Open, while collecting seven top ten finishes. Two years later he finished two strokes off the pace during a memorable duel with Vijay Singh at the PGA Championship. The next season he finished fifth at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, and in 2001 he won the million-dollar, WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship by defeating Pierre Fulke. But from that point things quickly went downhill. From 2001-05, Stricker missed 47 cuts and had just three top-ten finishes. He “hit bottom,” Promenschenkel writes, “when he failed to secure his tour card in December 2005 at Q-School.” Stricker ended 2005 at 337th in the World Golf Rankings, ten years after reaching number 12. Now perched at 4th in the world, Stricker has had two remarkable seasons back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. Largely thanks to seven top-10 finishes, Stricker was voted PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year in ’06, and this past season he ended a long-time winless drought when he found the winner’s circle at the first-event of the Tour’s first-ever FedEx Cup “playoffs,” The Barclays. Finally, Stricker’s banner year culminated with a runner-up finish to Woods in the FedEx standings, and some seriously strong play at the President’s Cup outside of Montreal.

Stricker has openly credited the unforeseen comeback to the countless hours he spent rebuilding his swing in a make-shift, wooden shack (without heat!) overlooking the Cherokee driving range. While the range itself was “covered with drifting snow and wind chills dropped the temperature below zero…Stricker kept working through the winter.” The work paid off. Stricker’s once languid but inconsistent swing became more compact and capable of repetition under pressure. This is a typical swing adjustment for players in their mid-to-late thirties (see Davis Love III), but the almost-instant success that it has brought Stricker is unusual, and moreover nothing short of magical (undoubtedly, Stricker’s improved putting—he ranked 6th in 2007—is also a principal cause of the turnaround).

The lesson here for Tour players, and player managers alike, is one of patience. As I wrote last week, much of professional golf (as well as any sport) is mental. The one thing a golfer cannot afford to do—ever—is to stop believing in himself. The second he does, he might as well quit. But instead of throwing in the towel, so to speak, Stricker decided to throw his soul into remaking his game. And Steinberg was there for his former roommate through thick and thin.

Who knows, maybe he even brought his client a cup of hot cocoa one of those days out there on the range? That would surely make for a good scene.

-Jason G. Wulterkens