I’m so fortunate to have had a career in golf.
But the professional golfer you see today — indeed, the man you see today — has learned a lot since he started playing full-time on the PGA Tour in 1994.
And there’s probably a lot that young golfers can learn from what happened to me.
In 1996, I won my first two PGA Tour events. I was comfortable with my game and felt like the victories were the beginning of something really special.
Once I started to make a name for myself on Tour, some pretty exciting things happened. Every person I knew wanted to advise me on how to conduct my finances. Different tournament officials began asking if I wanted to play in their events. I started making money with endorsements. I began chasing all the things that were suddenly available to me because I was winning.
It was all happening so quickly, and it sidetracked from my game.
Despite having won twice in 1996, I signed with a new sponsor and switched equipment for the following season. Looking back, that was the genesis of my struggles. In subtle ways I began to change the very game that had carried me to the highest level of golf. That was a huge mistake.
When the 1997 season opened, I was excited about the prospects of building upon a successful ’96. But, in the back of my mind, I knew that my game and mindset were completely different from what they had been before. I didn’t feel like the humble boy from Wisconsin anymore.
On the Wednesday before the 1997 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am began, I found out that in addition to being paired with Kevin Costner and Bryant Gumbel, I was going to be paired with a skinny 22-year-old who was rapidly changing the landscape of golf — both on and off the course.
That kid was Tiger Woods.
You never really forget the first time you hear Tiger hit a golf ball.
Several times, I would really connect with a drive only to be stunned to see that Tiger’s ball had landed 40 to 50 yards beyond mine.
After the first round had ended, I told Nicki, my wife and caddy, what I had been thinking since the moment we left the course: “I can’t compete with that type of game. I just can’t compete with that.”
This was the first big blow to my confidence as a golfer.
My round with Tiger made me introspective, and for the first time I began to doubt myself. All the early mornings on the range hitting balls until my hands were torn with calluses; all the hours spent practicing during the frigid Wisconsin winters; all the memories I had of being on the course with my father; in my mind, at that moment, it truly seemed as though all of the time and effort I had put into the game of golf had been rendered utterly meaningless.
Being on Tour wasn’t all I had thought it would be. I enjoyed playing golf for a living, yes. But the airports, the car rides, the hotels — I think I lost the desire to do a lot of things it took to live the life of a professional golfer.
It was a pretty dark moment in my career. The deals that I had signed obligated me to travel overseas to play in a few international tournaments. I suddenly didn’t want that anymore.
I didn’t want to have to play in tournaments just for the money. I didn’t want to have to sleep in a different hotel each week.
Most of all, I didn’t want to have to miss my family anymore. I missed living at home with my wife. I missed my kids. I wanted to see them grow up. I wanted to be their father. It was a very sad time for me.
As a result, I started to perform very poorly. In 1997, I dropped sharply from 12th to 43rd in the Official World Golf Ranking. After a while, my confidence was shot.
Sure, I had some good moments, like at the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club, where I was the runner-up, or at the ’99 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where I finished fifth.
But my success didn’t amount to much. I simply couldn’t gain any momentum. It’s difficult to describe.
Then, during the early 2000s, something pretty special happened. It resulted in an epiphany.
I had played one of the worst professional rounds of my career down at Doral, and was just kind of lost. The worst part about it was that I had done it in front of Jack Nicklaus, who was my playing partner that day.
It was as embarrassing as you might think it would be. Golf is a lonely, lonely game when you’re playing that poorly.
As I signed my scorecard and prepared to head home for the weekend, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was Jack.
“Steve, I’ll see you over on the range. I have a thing or two I want to show you about how you’re swinging the driver.”
A minute or so later, over on the range, Jack stood a few feet away from me, arms crossed, watching me push a tee into the ground. He gave me a few quick tips, and it wasn’t long before I was striping the ball.
I realized that I was exerting too much of my time and energy trying to play golf like someone who I wasn’t, which led me to question my passion for the game.
Unfortunately, not even a 10-minute lesson with an all-time great was going to get me back into form. No, it was going to take me a few years to truly feel confident in my game again. So despite that moment with Jack, there were still low moments to come.
In 2004, I performed so poorly that I lost my PGA Tour card.
Of all the setbacks I had experienced up to that point in my career — everything from my confidence being dismantled by Tiger Woods’s game to playing terribly in front of Jack Nicklaus — nothing was as demoralizing as finding out that I didn’t belong with my contemporaries.
I played in none of the majors during the 2005 season and had to rely on sponsor exemptions to make any appearances at all. Ironically, a lot of good came from my struggles. I was happy again. I was with my family. I made the necessary changes to my game to be successful again. I went back to the style of play that had gotten me on the Tour in the first place, which focused more on precision and a solid short game than it did on length.
In 2006, I won the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year award, and in 2007, reached No. 5 in the world rankings.
I’m so grateful to those who gave me the confidence to keep fighting for a spot on Tour. But, make no mistake about it: It wasn’t easy. It was never easy.
So, why am I writing all of this? And why now?
Well, I hope that my story can be a cautionary tale for all the young professionals out there. There’s a tremendous amount of talent in our game. My advice to young golfers may be cliché, but it’s still incredibly important: Don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken. Golfers on the PGA Tour are at the highest level because they’ve stayed true to their game.
I want the younger generation to cherish every moment they have on the PGA Tour. I know it’s hard, but they can’t take anything for granted. They can’t chase dollars, whether it’s equipment deals or appearance fees. They can’t let anything change the game that brought them to the top.
Sometimes, I think back to my childhood in Edgerton, Wis., and wonder how the heck I got to where I am today. I was just a simple kid, running around town with my pals and helping my dad at his shop, Stricker Electric.
I learned a lot from helping my father back then. Both he and my mother taught me all the Midwestern values that I’ve tried to carry with me to this day. I hope that some of those are reflected in my charity, the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation, which helps give young people the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
We were all young kids at some point. When I was in my early teens, my pals and I would make our way over to Edgerton Towne Country Club at the end of long summer days. The course didn’t have an irrigation system in place back then. So we helped out the groundskeeper by manually moving each hose and sprinkler from one hole to the next. I know, it doesn’t sound too exciting, but to a couple of boys in Edgerton it was the one thing we looked forward to each day.
Boy, did we have fun out there.
And now, to think about where I am today and what’s coming next week — the American Family Insurance Championship — I can’t stop smiling.
A tremendous amount of work has gone into putting this special tournament together … I’m just humbled. I’m so, so humbled. I often sit back and think about where I was at the lowest moments of my career, and to now bring a PGA Tour event back to my home state — I’m truly at a loss for words. Who would’ve thought back in 2004 that I would be in this position?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received some calls from a couple of guys on the Champions Tour who’ve been supportive of this tournament. They told me that they are excited to see how proud I am just to be a part of it.
To Nicki, and to my children: Thank you for believing in me when I needed it the most. I’m so fortunate to have you all. I love you.
To American Family Insurance — thank you for allowing me to be your ambassador. You are the ones who have made this happen.
To the game of golf — thank you for teaching me how to fight through adversity.
And to the younger generation of golfers — thank you for all you’ve done for the game. Just remember, keep working at what you’re good at. You’re all an inspiration to so many people — young and old.
The American Family Insurance Championship will be held June 20-26, 2016 at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, WI. This no-cut event will be broadcast live on the Golf Channel from June 24 to 26. The 81-player field will feature celebrity pairings during Saturday’s broadcast, including Wisconsin legends Andy North, Brett Favre and Mark Tauscher.