Gentle images from Bay Hill last weekend portrayed tournament caddying as a very different world from the grizzled old-time bagman with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. There was the sight of fit, athletic women carrying the sticks and looking entirely comfortable with their lot.
Indeed the climactic moments of the Arnold Palmer Invitational were brightened considerably by the sight of Helen Storey, Lee Westwood’s fiancee, receiving a courteous handshake from the winner, Bryson DeChambeau. All wonderfully civilized.
And we could have a similar happening at Sawgrass today, given Westwood’s prominence in the Players Championship.
It seems that increasing numbers of partners are being prompted into caddying roles on the European Tour by the limitations imposed by Covid. Where a player’s bubble could restrict him to one person, he is going to be somewhat choosy about his dinner partner.
Long before the pandemic, however, such arrangements were established in the US game by Steve and Nicki Stricker, who are pioneers on golfing togetherness. And their involvement will be further broadened next September at Whistling Straits, where Nicki becomes a very welcome colleague for Caroline Harrington in their roles as Ryder Cup captains’ wives.
I first met the Strickers during the week of his debut in the 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lytham, where they celebrated their third wedding anniversary on the eve of battle, he at 29 and she as a 25-year-old.
Earlier that July, he captured the Western Open by a crushing eight-stroke margin. It meant that with Nicki on the bag, they had gained the unique distinction of becoming a winning husband and wife partnership on the PGA Tour. Though this has since been matched by Patrick Reed and his wife, Justine, the Strickers are the only couple to have gone on and won also at Champions Tour level. As it happens, he has 12 victories on the PGA Tour and five on the Champions Tour and is the first to captain the American Ryder Cup team without being a Major title winner.
Things, however, were not always plain-sailing. “During 1994, my first year on the PGA tour, we heard people say that I would have a tough time winning with Nicki on the bag,” said Stricker. “But we always knew it was right. We were never doing it just as a novelty act. We did it because she was the right person for the job.”
He then added pointedly: “I’m glad she’s with me all the time. Apart from being married, she happens to be my best friend.”
A native of Edgerton, Wisconsin, Stricker turned professional in 1990 but didn’t get through the qualifying school until the end of 1993. By that stage, he and Nicki had been together four years, scratching a few dollars wherever they could, generally on the local mini-tours.
Standing a little over 5ft 4ins, she appeared to have no problem in toting her husband’s tournament golf bag, though at 34lbs, it was slightly lighter than standard. They’ve certainly presented a charming sight on television in their various victories over the years, walking up the 72nd fairway in triumph.
“I’m very proud of what Steve has done and it’s marvellous that we’ve been able to share so much of it,” she said. “We have what I would describe as a professional relationship on the golf course. I know the game (she once played off two-handicap) and I’m not afraid to tell him if I think he’s making a wrong decision.”
Their golfing links are cemented by the fact of her father, Dennis Tiziani, being Stricker’s long-time instructor, while brother-in-law, Mario Tiziani, a former tour player, is Stricker’s manager and caddies for him when Nicki is not available.
When I renewed acquaintanceship with the player on his return to Lytham for the 2012 Open, he was on his own. During the years since 1996, he and Nicki had become parents to two daughters, Bobbi Maria in 1998 and Isabella Nicole (Izzi) in 2006. “Nicki’s got her hands pretty full these days, taking care of the girls, who are both at school,” he said. “Either way, she doesn’t like flying, which sort of ruled her out of being here with me this week.”
She was back on the bag, however, this late January at Torrey Pines and again a week later when Stricker carded rounds of 65, 66, 69, 67 to be tied fourth in the Phoenix Open, where he partnered Pádraig Harrington for the first two rounds. And she was in action again last week at Bay Hill. Meanwhile, his brother-in-law took over caddying duties for the Cologuard Classic on the Champions Tour and at Sawgrass.
With the Ryder Cup originally set fair for September last, the respective captains and their wives travelled to Whistling Straits 12 months previously for a special media gathering. That was when Harrington’s wife, Caroline, met her American countpart.
“I don’t know Nikki very well,” she said, “other than from our meeting on that occasion. I soon learned, however, that her duties are a lot lighter than mine. Where the European Tour have landed me with choosing the various outfits for the players and their partners from the Italian designers, Loro Piana, American arrangements are being handled by their Ryder Cup officials.
“I have to say I’m enjoying the involvement, but Nicki made it clear to me that she intends to take a back seat at the Ryder Cup. As she put it, ‘This is Steve’s gig.’”
Meanwhile, the two women’s experience as caddies could hardly be more contrasting. “I’ve never caddied for Pádraig as a professional,” said Caroline. “But I caddied for him twice as an amateur, when he won the Mullingar Scratch Trophy and in the North of Ireland at Portrush. You’d need to be a fit lady to be carrying that bag around. Lee Westwood’s girlfriend, Helen, is one very fit lady. She’s seriously fit.”
After 12 victories on the PGA Tour, Stricker made seamless progress to senior ranks where he has since won five times. Especially impressive was his triumph in the 2019 US Senior Open at Warren GC, Indiana, where he set records with a 19-under-par aggregate and a winning margin of six strokes.
Though Rory McIlroy reckons that a caddie represents only five per cent of a tournament performance, Nicki clearly thought differently when reflecting on the week prior to the Senior Open. That was when Stricker squandered the chance of victory in the American Family Insurance Championship in their home town of Madison.
She felt responsible for misreading a potential winning putt on the final green before he went on to lose a play-off. “I’ve never been put in that position before,” she said. “He’s not ever asked me for my help, so yeah, I did take that hard because I was wrong.”
At the presentation ceremony, Nicki and her husband were joined by Bobbi, then a 20-year-old junior on the Wisconsin college team. Izzi, a promising 13-year-old, completed the family quartet.
Later, Stricker told American scribe, Dylan Dethier: “We love golf, and we all play it. My wife plays a lot. My daughters are getting into it more and more all the time. And they see the work ethic that I put in and Nicki puts in, too. She works at her game very hard. They enjoy being out here and I enjoy having them out here. It brings us all together.”
Given Stricker’s winning cheque for $720,000 on that occasion — his career tournament earnings are currently $48.6m — it seemed reasonable to enquire as to whether his wife would be getting the standard, 10 per cent caddie’s cut. “I can tell you that she gets way more than 10 per cent,” he replied. Then, with a smile: “She gets whatever she wants.”
And rightly so.