Why Steve Stricker is the perfect Ryder Cup captain for these unsettled times
HAVEN, Wisc. — Could it be that Seve, packing so much charisma his navy cashmere sweaters could barely contain him, was a Ryder Cup captain only once? Sadly, yes. But at least the great Spanish movie star (he seemed like one) had the gig at the right place and at the right time.
Ballesteros cast a spell over that 1997 Ryder Cup, held in his native Spain. Spain! He was king of it, all of it. He had his fingers in everything, from the wines served at dinner to the foursomes-fourball order of play on Friday and Saturday. He annoyed the hell out of the 12 American players and their captain, Tom Kite. Seve didn’t care. He owned the joint. Spain won.
It’s happened twice before, where a big-name, big-personality Ryder Cup captain was so associated with its venue. In 1987, the Ryder Cup was at Muirfield Village, in Dublin, Ohio, on a course that Jack built, and in his hometown. Nicklaus, widely regarded then as the greatest player golf had ever seen, was the U.S. captain. He owned that week as surely as Seve owned the days of the ’97 Ryder Cup. The Americans lost. “Had it been any other captain, he would have been roasted,” Nicklaus will tell you. Nicklaus wasn’t. Nicklaus, and especially Nicklaus in Ohio? Untouchable.
Giving Nicklaus the captaincy for the ’87 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village was a gift to him from the PGA of America, one he had surely earned. (He had the job in ’83, too, when the Americans won.) Same sort of gift Arnold Palmer received when he was named as the U.S. captain for the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley, near Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pa., on a course he had renovated. Arnold — Arnold! — owned that week. The Americans ran off with the trophy, the Ryder Cup itself.
Make no mistake, Steve Stricker has strengths all his own. He’s nice, he’s fair, he’s organized, he’s calm, he’s patient, he’s steady.
So you could say that ’75 Ryder Cup set a tone and a template for what Nicklaus did 12 years later and what Ballesteros did 10 years after that.
Three of the biggest personalities the game has ever known, at the center of golf’s greatest team competition, even though its three days go by about as fast as a Jon Rahm backswing. Talk about your brief shining moments. Camelot, golf-style. You play a Ryder Cup in 72 hours, really. Golf Channel rebroadcasts it forever.
And now that pattern is unfolding again, sort of. The Ryder Cup is in Wisconsin, on a gorgeous lakefront resort course owned by an avuncular, homemade billionaire (Herb Kohler, Kohler, Wisc., faucets), with a home team captained by a homeboy. The man who needs no introduction.
OK, Steve Stricker, the 54-year-old senior tour player and one of only two players to win the John Deere Classic — aka Quad Cities — three times. A man born and raised in Wisconsin and living in the state to this day. A Badger’s badger, even if he did play his college golf at Illinois. Good golfer. Not a scholar. “C’s get degrees,” he once said.
Granted, in the cleanup position being presented in this brief Ryder Cup history, he’s no Arnold, no Jack, no Seve. Stricker has never won a major, he’s not going to own the vast and heaving Whistling Straits course as Seve did Valderrama, or the microphone in the interview room. He has five assistants assisting him. (Seve had his brothers out there but in truth he was flying solo.) Not even Stricker’s down-to-earth wife (and former caddie) would call her husband larger than life.
But make no mistake, Steve Stricker has strengths all his own. He’s nice, he’s fair, he’s organized, he’s calm, he’s patient, he’s steady.
As it happens, all things that Seve Ballesteros was not.
But nobody is asking Sticker to be a captain in the Seve tradition, or in the Jack or Arnold tradition. The PGA of America gave the job (its pro bono work) to a soft-spoken pro and the team Stricker has assembled (he had six captain’s picks) and puts out there (he signs the lineup cards) will either bring the little trophy back to these United States, or it won’t.
Steve Stricker here is the Steve Stricker we’ve seen for the past 25 years coming into this week, and nothing will change when this week is over.
People will say, now and again, that a captain should get two cracks at the job, as is the custom for the amateur Walker Cup, at least on the American side. That will not happen here, no matter what the final scoreboard says. A big part of the reason that Stricker is the captain is because the event is being played in his home state, and powerful people wanted him here. (Paging Tiger. Paging Herb Kohler.) Fans are the 13th man at Ryder Cups, especially fans rooting for the home team. Everybody knows that, including Stricker, who played on three Ryder Cup teams.
He offered this call to action in a press conference on Tuesday, in his way:
“We were up in Hazeltine [the 2016 Ryder Cup] not too long ago, and that got loud and somewhat crossed the line at times, which we don’t want to see. So yeah, I think it’s going to be — it’s a Ryder Cup. These fans have been pent up for a long time, and they’re going to come out and get behind their team. It’s going to be loud. We expect it to be loud. But we ask for people not to cross that line and be respectful of both sides.”
Tom Kite was reasonable. Tom Lehman was reasonable. Jim Furyk was reasonable. As a general rule, the PGA of America doesn’t go for outsize personalities, though it did have a long successful run with Walter Hagen as the captain, and Phil Mickelson is surely coming. It likes reasonable. Have you met PGA of America pros? Their stock-in-trade, to generalize, is reasonableness.
Stricker’s counterpart, Padraig Harrington, an accountant by training, is broadly similar to Stricker. Not a firebrand, though he is witty and answers many questions with a torrent of words. Stricker and Harrington are probably the exact right two captains for these unsettled times.
Harrington, a Dubliner, has the Irish lilt in his voice that makes everything sound playful, whether it is or is not. Asked about Stricker on Tuesday afternoon, the European captain said, “I’ve known Steve a long, long time. I think what’s most memorable when you think of Steve is he’s a nice guy, but he’s tough on the golf course.
“He’s a perfect gentleman, he’s exactly how you would want a golfer to be. He’s somebody who goes out there, plays his golf, he’s strong and real tough out there, but is very straight about it.
“I think the fact that he came back from the driver yips in the late ’90s, that says everything about him as a person. Golf is a pretty tough game, but when you get a setback like that, that really knocks you. To come back and be a world-class player after that? Very impressive person and golfer.”
About three hours later, Stricker was asked about Harrington.
“He’s a friend,” Stricker said, standing alone in front of a microphone, wearing sneakers and a watch. A captain must keep the trains running on time.
“I got to know [Padraig] somewhat through the course of my career,” Stricker said. “A true gentleman, a true champion. A really wonderful guy, and neat guy to know. I don’t think we’re doing [our captaincies] any different than who we really are. I think you’re just seeing us. We’re polite to one another. We try to conduct ourselves in the proper manner and all that kind of stuff.”
All that kind of stuff indeed. The opening salvo. The preamble, of course, is far longer than the event itself. Not the way Steve Stricker would want it, but what can he do about it? Not a thing. Wait it out. Friday morning will come eventually.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com