Manifest destiny: Memorial was simply Stricker's to win

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June 05, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

DUBLIN, Ohio -- True to form, the voice began to crack as soon as he stepped to the microphone behind the podium hastily set up on the 18th green. Tears filled his eyes and slowly crept down his cheek.

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But Steve Stricker made it through the presentation ceremony without breaking down completely after he won the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide on a marathon Sunday at Muirfield Village. He even managed to keep his cool as he hugged the Hall of Fame host Jack Nicklaus, too.

That doesn't mean it was easy, though. Not on a day when Stricker needed three do-or-die par saves on a challenging back nine that had his number all week to preserve the one-stroke victory over Matt Kuchar and Brandt Jobe.

He deserved to let off a little steam.

"I think you stick so much energy into the whole week, and I don't let myself think about winning so much," Stricker said. "But when it's finally over and all that emotion, I think, comes out and you have this guy congratulating you as you walk off, it's pretty special, pretty cool time."

The victory, which took Stricker to 11th in the FedExCup standings, was his 10th -- and the seventh since he turned 40 and resurrected his career. And as low as he sank in 2005 and '06, those years when he was writing for sponsor's exemptions just to have a chance to play, Stricker's competitive Horatio Alger story just keeps getting better and better now.

"I've got to pinch myself every once in a while really, to remember where I was and to see where I am today," Stricker acknowledged. "The confidence level at which I play now is night and day from where I ever was, and that's a good thing. I'm just enjoying the ride."

Stricker needed all that confidence on Sunday as he sat in the workout room in the clubhouse at Muirfield Village, playing with his phone and waiting out a weather delay that stretched to an interminable two hours and 34 minutes. He wondered what might happen. He worried about what might happen, too.

After all, Stricker had struggled on the back nine all week, playing it 2 over prior to Sunday and 4 over for the week. He was golden like the bear who built it on the front, though, while shooting 20 under -- and as it turned out, "I needed all of them," he said.

The differential could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy had it not been for Stricker's determination to succeed. He didn't let his lack of success on the home stretch cloud his judgment. He just hung tough and did his job like he always does.

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"We just have our kind of motto that we keep," Stricker's longtime caddie Jimmy Johnson said. "We just do what we do. It's just the process, not the results. We try to keep hitting shots the best we can and see what happens."

Maybe it was the big leads -- as much as six shots on Saturday and four when he made the turn in the final round -- that rattled Stricker. He got tentative. A little sloppy, even. And just when he tried to press forward on Sunday, Mother Nature intervened.

"You're just trying to finish off the tournament, don't want to give it away, and that's a hard way to play," Stricker explained. "It's a little bit easier if you're coming from behind, but if you have that three- or four-shot lead, it's tough -- especially when we go sit up there for two and a half hours and I've got to think about it for that amount of time."

Stricker had just hit his drive at the 13th hole when the horn sounded to suspend play. He came back out and made consecutive pars before sending his drive into the trees at the 15th hole and making bogey for the second straight day. All of a sudden, he'd lost a shot to Kuchar and Jobe was hanging tough.

But so was Stricker.

And as great as the ace at the eighth hole was on Friday, as cool as the eagles on Nos. 2 and 5 on Saturday were, the Memorial Tournament finally came down to a pair of sand saves at the 16th and 17th holes on Sunday. Stricker made a delicate 16-footer at the par 3 and a 7-footer to keep him two ahead as he came to the 18th hole.

"Those won it for him," Johnson said, as he also singled out another brilliant bunker shot at No. 12 that trickled down to tap-in distance. "That was the best shot you played," Nicklaus told Stricker. "Thank you" -- twice -- was all the modest champion could say.

Johnson says his boss is "awesome -- as a golfer, a person, everything." Nicklaus, who has known Stricker for about 25 years, since he was playing for Illinois against the Golden Bear's son Gary, called him a "great kid."

"I think he's been a superstar from the way he's behaved himself, the way he handles his game, the way he handles people and the way he handles fans," said the man who was Stricker's Captain at the 2006 Presidents Cup. "He's always done that, and that to me is equally as important as how well you score."

Stricker, who was the only player to break 70 in all four rounds, nonetheless acknowledged he didn't play the way he's capable of down the stretch. While he said the shots "weren't really what he was dreaming of" the win was, and Stricker has one week to enjoy it before setting his sights on what would be his first major championship at Congressional in two weeks.

"You look back at all these things that happened throughout the week," Stricker said. "The hole-in-one and obviously the eagles and a couple up and downs at 12 and 16, and you really believe that it was your week to win when all those things happen like that."

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