Verdi: Stricker ideal winner of Payne Stewart Award

September 18, 2012

Steve Stricker, who realizes that he occasionally is unable to harness his emotions, braced himself for another potential watershed moment. A popular and decorated PGA TOUR veteran, Stricker received the 2012 Payne Stewart Award before the final FedExCup Playoffs event, the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in Atlanta.


Naturally, Stricker is humbled by and appreciative of the tribute. Also, he had been pondering how much Kleenex to bring along for Tuesday's ceremony at East Lake Golf Club.

"You've gotta understand," Stricker said. "I've attended the last few of those, and whenever they start talking about Payne, I get choked up and cry. And that's when someone else is getting the award. Now, it's me. I'm going to have to speak and I'm thinking I have to write the whole thing out or else I'll never get through it. I can't just use notes or wing it, can I?"

Stricker pauses and smiles.

"Maybe I can just lip sync it," he said. "Or, tape my acceptance speech, like it's on YouTube. I can just stand there while they play it."

Of this you can be sure. The Payne Stewart Award -- which commemorates the legacy of a PGA TOUR star who died in 1999, and is presented to a player "sharing Stewart's respect for the traditions of the game, his commitment to uphold the game's heritage of charitable support and his professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct" -- belongs in Stricker's trophy case.

Since the inception of the award in 2000, the honor has been bestowed on men truly worthy of an honor roll: Byron Nelson (2000), Jack Nicklaus (2000), Arnold Palmer (2000), Ben Crenshaw ('01), Nick Price ('02), Tom Watson ('03), Jay Haas ('04), Brad Faxon ('05), Gary Player ('06), Hal Sutton ('07), Davis Love III ('08), Kenny Perry ('09), Tom Lehman ('10) and David Toms ('11). Stricker fits in like a well-used glove, for the way he has treated golf even when golf treated him cruelly.

Mind you, Stricker volunteers that he is different from Stewart in one department.

"Dress," he said. "Payne was very flamboyant and I am not. He was distinctive. The loudest thing I ever wear is maybe a neon green shirt. Payne stood out. I'm a blender."

Otherwise, Stricker is a perfect recipient. Tiger Woods has praised him as "the nicest guy out there," but it's about more than that. Through the short grass and gnarly rough, Stricker has represented golf in every positive way possible. He gives his time and money, he says hello to all before it's time to say goodbye, and he exemplifies what is unique and special about golf, the last bastion of civility in athletics. The rules demand accountability when no one else is looking, but one does not learn grace under pressure from a book. We saw that during the middle of the last decade when Stricker lost his way, but never his substance. Shooting 79 doesn't mean you forget to thank the volunteers.

"I was playing terribly for a while, driving the ball all over the place," Stricker recalled. "I was burning up inside. I even thought of quitting at one point. But I tried to still treat people right. I didn't know Payne that well. I played with him a few times. And I thought about him, because he had some down periods, too. He fought his way through it while conducting himself like a professional. Everybody remembers that picture of him, grabbing Phil Mickelson after he beat him on the last hole of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999. Telling Phil about how great an experience he was about to have, becoming a father for the first time. The next day. Very classy."

Enduring an extended stay in golf's black hole, Stricker gladly accepted a sponsor's exemption to the Shell Houston Open in 2006. He finished third, and gradually resurrected a career that began with much promise after he left the University of Illinois and eventually joined the TOUR in 1994. He pounded practice balls at a covered range during winters in Wisconsin, uncertain but hopeful that he could rejoin peers for summers in the sun. Stricker is still in search of a major title, but he owns a distinction unlikely to be matched from now to eternity -- consecutive Comeback Player of the Year awards in 2006 and 2007.

"I had the support of a lot of friends, good friends," Stricker said. "And my wife, Nicki. I tried not to bring the bad time home, but she's from a golf background. She caddied for me. She wanted to talk things out. That was helpful. Now, I'm in a very nice place, winning here and there, being part of all these great team events, the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. I'm 46 next February. I'm nearing the end, but I'm relaxed, calm and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Nothing I can go through could be worse than what I've been through."

Stricker pauses again.

"I mentioned how I think of Payne, and I do," he said. "More than you would think. Whenever I get on an airplane, leaving a young family behind, going to do my job ... Payne was on top of the world, and then he's gone. Terrible. Terrible tragedy. You just have to be thankful, and I am. We have such a great sport, so clean, good people. I'm so proud to be a part of it. I'm enjoying my time out here more than I ever have. I've seen it all, lived through it all, and I got through it. This is really a privilege to play on the PGA TOUR, a game I grew up with, that's in my blood."

Leo Durocher, a famous baseball manager, once remarked that nice guys finish last. Durocher never met Stricker. But when I mention to Stricker that he can't have any enemies, when I say I have searched high and low for someone with a bad word about him and have failed, he begs to differ.

"Ask some of my former caddies about that," Stricker said. (He doesn't mean Nicki.) "Some of them might not like me so much. It's not that I kiss up to people. I just try to be polite, respect them. That's our sport. We play hard, we compete, we govern ourselves, we behave."