American relishing Lytham test with help of his father-in-law, writes Dermot Gilleece
Displaying a convert's zeal, Steve Stricker seemed to yearn for the special look and feel that first attracted him to links terrain. "It's fairly Americanised out there; kinda soft," he remarked with obvious regret about the unusually verdant fairways of Royal Lytham. Then, as almost the ultimate indictment, he added: "Target golf."
With a quiet demeanour hiding competitive steel, his special status on the tournament scene reflects the sort of family values one associates with the American mid-west. As player and caddie, he and his wife, Nicki, remain the last married couple to have captured a PGA Tour event, which they did together in the Western Open in 1996. And her father, Dennis Tiziani, has been the player's only coach.
Fresh from that Chicago triumph, they experienced their first British Open at Lytham where the burnt, brown links was greatly to Stricker's liking. A year previously, in attempting to qualify for St Andrews, he had his links baptism on the shallow duneland of Leven, on Scotland's east coast. "There, I found myself warming to the feel of bump-and-run shots and learning to accept odd bounces of the ball," he recalled.
In fact he liked it so much that he felt American greenkeepers had lost their way with so much emphasis "on green being beautiful".
"I remember going back to my home course in Madison (Wisconsin) and trying to convince them that the real beauty was in what I had seen here at Lytham," he said.
For all his easy-going demeanour, Stricker is a passionate, principled man, not afraid to fight his corner. Though he turned professional in 1990, it was the end of 1993 before he got through the PGA qualifying school by which stage he and Nicki, an accomplished two-handicap golfer in her own right, had been together four years, scratching a few dollars anywhere they could, largely on the mini-tours.
They married on July 17, 1993 and during 1994, his first year on the PGA tour, he heard locker-room talk about how he would have a tough time winning with her on the bag. "Those criticisms were very unfair," he said. "We always knew it was right. We were never doing it as a novelty act. She happens to be a very good caddie and though we barked at each other from time to time, it was mostly a lot of fun."
In the 1996 Open, when they celebrated their third wedding anniversary on the eve of the championship, the Strickers earned a share of 22nd place. Two years later, becoming pregnant with their first child, Bobbi Maria, meant an end to Nicki's regular caddying. And a second daughter, Isabella Nicole, came along in 2006.
Still, Nicki continued to make the odd appearance on her husband's bag. Indeed she gave Stricker's regular bagman, Jimmy Johnson, a week off by caddying for her husband in the Greenbrier Classic earlier this month. And once more, it was a notable occasion, marking his 300th cut in 408 PGA Tour events.
"She's got her hands pretty full these days, taking care of the girls, who are both at school," continued the player who won his 12th Tour title in Hawaii last January. "Either way, she doesn't like flying, which sort of ruled her out of being here with me this week.
"But we have great memories of the 1996 Open, when we stayed in a house down the road there, sharing with Jeff Sluman and his caddie. We would go out for dinner together every night in the same, local Italian restaurant. It was all so new for Nicki and me. A wonderful adventure."
And what of her father? At a time when loss of form will almost inevitably mean the sack for a coach, Stricker has stayed with the same man, even through decidedly lean years from 2003 to 2005, when he failed to make the top 100 in the US money list.
Tiziani has, in fact, been Stricker's coach since the late 1980s when the player began to show serious potential. As to whether he ever thought of changing: there was the customary, ready smile, before Stricker replied, "Well, he's my father-in-law, so I have to get on with him, don't I. But the serious thing is that he knows what he's talking about when it comes to the game of golf. And we relate well together. That's why it's lasted so long."
Part of their work together involved the development of an unusually stiff-wristed action which promotes accuracy at the expense of length. More importantly, it has allowed him become a remarkably skilful short-iron player, exemplified in his opening round on Thursday by a holed-out 87-yard sand-wedge for an eagle two on the 355-yard 13th.
And typical of the player's equilibrium was the way he turned the potential set-back of a broken driver in practice last Tuesday, into something entirely positive. "Though the replacement driver was a little touchy to start with, I began to hit it pretty good. And it then became a kind of momentum-builder."
The Strickers' 19th wedding anniversary fell last Tuesday. "Yeah, there was a phone call," he said with another one of those quiet smiles. Then as he walked away, he added, "But I haven't got a present yet." And you knew that little postscript wasn't intended to impress.