With The Presidents Cup looming, the U.S. captain discusses his influences, his style, his strategy – and how Matt Kuchar cracks everybody up
August 29, 2017
By Mike McAllister & Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
Steve Stricker's 2017 balancing act
A month from now, Steve Stricker will lead the U.S. team against the International team in their biennial showdown at The Presidents Cup. The Americans will have the home-course advantage at Liberty National, and Stricker will attempt to continue their domination in the event, with the U.S. posting a 9-1-1 record. The Internationals under Nick Price hope to build on the momentum gained two years ago in Korea when they pushed the Americans to the final hole on the final match.
Stricker, the 12-time PGA TOUR winner, has been on the job for nearly 18 months. Compare that to Price, who is making his third appearance as the International captain. What Stricker may give up in experience, he hopes to counteract by leaning on a team with lots of young firepower and assistants that are either already in the Hall of Fame and should be one day.
During a recent visit at Liberty National, Stricker met with PGATOUR.COM to touch on a variety of topics.
Stricker has played under Arnold Palmer (1996), Jack Nicklaus (2007) and Fred Couples (2009, ’11, ’13) in his five Presidents Cup appearances, and Paul Azinger (2008), Corey Pavin (2010) and Davis Love III (2012) in his three Ryder Cup appearances. He’s also been a Presidents Cup assistant captain to Jay Haas (2015), and a Ryder Cup assistant captain to Tom Watson (2014) and Love (2016). That’s given him plenty of different perspectives on how to shape his own captaincy for Liberty National.
STRICKER: “Yeah, I think watching what Azinger did in '08 Ryder Cup, even back to Palmer and Nicklaus ‑‑ I played for Nicklaus in a Ryder Cup, Palmer in a Ryder Cup, and Davis. I think they listened to the guys. They listened to their players. Jay Haas, the same way. They wanted that input, and they made it real easy for the guys, I think. Especially Azinger had the whole team involved. Everybody had a vested interest.
“I remember I was a pick for Azinger, and immediately he said, ‘You're on the team,’ and then he's like, ‘Who would you like to see as another pick?’ I mean, he just had me as a pick and now he's asking me who I thought would be a good fit for the team. I thought that was really cool and gets the whole team involved with the decision, and obviously all the assistant captains are involved, too. I think that was really important to see what Zinger did and how he paired the guys together and made those pods. Then just kind of the easy demeanors of Jay Haas and Davis Love and how that all works. The guys really seemed to respond to that.
“I think we get the input from everybody. Ultimately, it's still our decision who we're going to pair together and then who are they going to play, especially in the Presidents Cup… these are big decisions. So we have to be prepared for that and ready for anything like whoever Nick Price puts down, we've got to be prepared who we want to put against those guys. So that's a challenge of the Presidents Cup.
“But you know, listen to your players, and I think that's what those guys have shown me over the years, some of these captains. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't, and you've got to be prepared. Some of these friends that want to get together and team up, sometimes they can really work and sometimes it doesn't, and you've got to be prepared to maybe let them try it but then you can see if it's going to work or not, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, and you've got to be prepared to go a different direction.”
You’ve probably seen the Avis commercial that plays against type. Stricker in the car, talking about how pulse-pounding music can turn him from man into beast, and that once he arrives at his destination, he’s “more than in the zone. I’m a savage.” The commercial works because Stricker has a laid-back reputation, always in control, more apt to cry (which he’s done after some of his wins) than display anger. No one disputes that Stricker is one of the nicest guys on TOUR. But that begs the question: If he needs to crack the whip or spark emotion from his team, can he deliver?
STRICKER: “Yeah, I think I can. I think I've been around a long time, and I think I've got that in me. I show that sometimes. I'll get irritated with certain things and I'll kind of step outside my normal box and voice my opinion. It doesn't happen a lot, but it does come out every once in a while, and I think I'll be able to do that.”
Still, he’s not about to change his good-guy demeanor. When asked why he considers himself a good choice to lead the U.S. team, he cites that as one of the primary reasons.
STRICKER: “I get along with a lot of the guys. I've been around a long time. I continued playing all the way up until I'm 50 years old. I'm still in the game. … I just feel like maybe I've gotten some of their respect over the years, and I think just maybe the way I came back from playing so horribly and to the point of where I was making all these teams year after year, that's why maybe, Like I said, I get along with a lot of guys, and I think it's a good quality to have in your captain. Davis Love was the same way and Jay Haas. They're nice guys, and guys like them and play hard for their captain that they like. So maybe that's why.”
Plus, he’ll seek input from everybody. Not just his assistants, not just his team leaders, but all 12 players.
STRICKER: “Yeah, I'll ask everybody. They may have some insight of a pick or of a partner they want to play with that I've never heard of before, and I've tried to maintain playing enough out on TOUR so I can see these guys and hear what they have to say, and I've been asking more and more questions. I'm not afraid to ask questions, so that's a good trait I think I have, too, is I'm not afraid to ask the questions. These guys usually, once you ask them, they're going to talk. They know one another. They've played with one another, and they've got a lot of insight.”
Speaking of those assistants, Stricker will have four by his side. A year ago, he named Fred Couples, Davis Love III and Tiger Woods as his first three assistants, then added Jim Furyk earlier this year. Those four have combined for 52 Presidents Cup/Ryder Cup appearances, and each also has experience at either the captain or assistants level. Stricker was asked about each one.
STRICKER: “We'll start with Tiger. I think he brings so much experience to the table, and the way he got so invested in our team last year in the Ryder Cup, that was a different side than what we've ever seen from Tiger, and the guys really rallied behind that.
“Davis Love brings a steady Eddie, a quiet, will-do-anything-for-you demeanor to the team. He's a guy you can count on for anything, making peanut butter sandwiches to talking to a guy about what he needs to do in the afternoon. Davis is one of the best people you'll ever meet.
“Jim Furyk, the same way, a ton of experience in this team format, a gritty player, which we have a lot of this year. We've got a lot of young, gritty players. He'll bring a lot, and he's very intelligent, and he thinks about everything. He thinks through everything and thinks through it.
“And Freddie, you know … it's lighthearted. Everybody wants to be around him. He has fun with everybody. He's still very relevant in our game. Guys love to be around Freddie, and he's smarter than what he comes off. You know, he makes you believe that he doesn't think about this kind of stuff and just throw the names down and we're going to do all right. But he thinks it through. He's just as passionate about this team as anybody.”
While Stricker will seek plenty of input concerning partnerships on his U.S. team, ultimately the decision is his. There’s more to the strategy than simply putting two friends together. It can sometimes be a matter of playing style compatibility. A specialist – someone who excels in one particularly area – can be helpful.
STRICKER: “Like in the foursome category, you need a guy to be a good chipper and good putter because you're not going to hit all the greens, and you need to be able to get it up‑and‑down. You need that ability to scrape a hole together with your partner, get a par and get out of there kind of thing, get it up‑and‑down from anywhere, and that usually means good short game and good putting. Just that ability -- like we saw in Ryan Moore last year -- just in that ability to be a good match player and grind it out even when you think you're out of the hole. You make your opponent work for it.
“I think on the Four‑ball side of things, you'd love to see a guy who makes a lot of birdies. But we were talking … there's some records on our team that I shake my head, like Dustin Johnson's record in Four‑ball is not very good (0-3-0), and you would think the guy has got so much offense and firepower that why wouldn't he be winning all his Four‑balls?
“So that's a question I've got to have with him. Why do you think [that’s the case]? What can we do to help you improve that? Do you need a more steady partner who's going to be in the hole all the time? Do you want two offensive guys together or do you want to have one offensive guys and one steady Eddie so it frees up the other guys? Those are still things I'm trying to figure out a little bit because you shake your head at some of the results of some of our players. Vice versa, his record in foursome is pretty good. You know, it doesn't make sense.”
The Presidents Cup has been played on U.S. soil six times – and the Americans have won every time. Five of those wins have been by three points or more. The New York/New Jersey area will host The Presidents Cup for the first time at Liberty National, a course in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Stricker doesn’t expect the crowds to hold back.
STRICKER: “It'll be boisterous. It'll be loud. Somebody said ‑‑ I can't remember who said it. You know, when you go to an event, any sporting event in the New York area, they feel like their ticket, the New Yorkers … it buys them the right to be able to yell whatever they want, where other parts of the country, that is a little bit more subdued. And we all realize that. We've played here enough, and you've got to have a little bit thicker skin here and just let it go in one ear and out the other at times. I imagine they're going to be so pro‑USA that we'll get a huge lift from it.”
The team room can set the tone for the team dynamic. Stricker was asked to share any funny stories. He started with Matt Kuchar.
STRICKER: “Well, Kuch is our kind of vocal comedian in the team room. I don't know if the pictures ever surfaced in the media last year from the Ryder Cup that he had T-shirts made up that said, ‘Make Tiger great again.’ I think that was Kuch that made those up. I think he did. But the T-shirts were up on the wall, and then it was which T-shirt fit to which guy, all these funny sayings on the T-shirts. Some were easy and some were hard to figure out. But Kuch usually makes it really light, and he'll wear goofy clothes down to the team room and just have a real good time with everybody and makes it a real nice atmosphere.”
On the flip side, though, the game faces eventually go on inside the team room, right?
STRICKER: “Oh, yeah. In the mornings when we're getting ready to go, prior to the matches. But in the evenings after the day, everybody is usually pretty light, having a good time, especially the last few years. The atmosphere has been really good and really fun to be around everybody. But you know, if you're losing, it's tough. So it all depends, I guess, that's the trick of the captain and everybody in that team room is if things aren't going right, how do you change that attitude and momentum to get it going the right way? But everybody is usually having a good time when they're winning, and that's the goal.”