WINDEMERE, Fla. (AP) — Steve Stricker’s easy ride into semi-retirement could be coming to a crossroads.
Not that it’s been easy lately.
The year began with his older brother, Scott, in the hospital waiting for a liver. He had transplant surgery five days before Stricker made his season debut in the Match Play Championship, and that turned out to be an example of how Stricker was tugged in so many directions that meant so much more than chasing after a golf ball.
“I was power of attorney,” he said. “So I got a call that morning before I teed off in my first match. I’ve got to make a decision whether they can go in and do a procedure because they can’t do it without asking me. That was before my first match. That’s the kind of stuff that was going on. It got to where my mind wasn’t focused. And to play well out here, you have to put everything into being out here.”
That was rarely a problem for Stricker, which is why this reduced schedule was so appealing in the first place.
He could neatly package his life into time on the PGA Tour, at home in Wisconsin with his wife and two daughters, with his charity project and time in a deer stand.
When he cut his schedule to 13 events in 2013, Stricker still managed to earn more than $4.4 million, finish No. 3 in the FedEx Cup (worth a $2 million bonus), qualify for the Presidents Cup team and move up 10 spots to No. 8 in the world ranking.
This year was a blur.
Instead of taking his daughters to school and heading to the golf course during the weeks he was preparing for tournaments, Stricker stayed with his brother. He said Scott was in the hospital for all but two months before he died with little warning on Oct. 4.
“He would never, ever say that was the reason he played good or bad,” said Stricker’s wife, Nicki. “But as much as he is able to separate things, it was tough on him. The hours he spent there were hard. You’re in ICU with a lot of people who are really sick.”
The work ethic didn’t change. Stricker doesn’t take short cuts. But while his hands were wrapped around a golf club, his head was somewhere else.
“I really wasn’t there,” he said. “I would take my kids to school and then I would go to the hospital until noon or 1 p.m. And then I would try to go practice, but coming out of the hospital, that takes a lot out of you.”
The weekend after Stricker returned from being a vice captain at the Ryder Cup, his brother took an unexpected turn for the worse and died at age 51.
Stricker finished No. 89 on the money list. He did not compete in any of the FedEx Cup playoff events because of a hip injury. His ranking has plunged 30 spots to No. 38. He will be eligible for the Masters next year by finishing the year in the top 50. He is not guaranteed a spot in any of the other majors.
Which brings him to the crossroads.
Even with his limited schedule, he could always count on playing a pair of World Golf Championships early in the year. But the Match Play has been moved to the first weekend in May. And after his most unproductive year since 2005 when he didn’t have his card, Stricker realized he probably won’t be eligible for Doral. If he doesn’t play until March, he will be out of the top 50.
That could present the first big temptation of semi-retirement. Does he add tournaments to make sure he’s eligible for the biggest events?
Ever since Stricker turned his game around a decade ago by hitting balls out of a three-sided trailer to a snow-covered range in the Wisconsin winter, he has been among the elite in golf. He has been in the top 50 for nearly eight years. He has been eligible for every major and WGC since 2007.
Being entrenched in the top 50 makes it easy to build a schedule around the biggest events.
“It is a concern of mine,” he said. “Because I’ve played in all these great events over the years. Then again, there’s so many good events I can play. I really enjoy what I’m doing with this limited schedule. The kids like having me at home. Nicki likes having me at home. I feel like if I can stay competitive enough, I should stay in that top 50. But I’m getting older. I turn 48 in January. It’s going to be harder and harder every year.
“Someday these events are going to stop,” he said. “I’d like to play them as long as I could. But I probably won’t chase that, either.”
So where would he start up next year?
“You might not see me for a couple of months,” he said, smiling as he walked off to join his wife.
They were headed to Naples for the Franklin-Templeton Shootout this week. The kids were to fly down on Tuesday.
It’s been a long, tough year. And it’s good to be with family.
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