Steve Stricker made a conscious choice coming into the week.
“I’m giving myself a break,” Stricker said after his first round at the Regions Tradition. He was keeping expectations low. Given the events of the previous few months, why sweat the small stuff? He used one word more than any other: Perspective. He meant it. And whether through freedom or perspective or just the best golf game in the field, it worked. Stricker won the Regions Tradition by six shots, claiming his fifth senior major championship and completing an emotional comeback win in the process.
Stricker entered the final round with a three-shot lead and kept his game face throughout. Despite stretching the significant lead, he knew the tournament was anything but finished — at least, until he holed out from a greenside bunker on No. 17 for an unlikely birdie to extend his lead to five. He made it six with another birdie at the finishing par 5. That’s when it finally sank in.
“It wasn’t really coming up 18, but more at the end,” Stricker said post-round. “Seeing it all come to an end, finally getting back into the winner’s circle again, like we said, we didn’t know where this was going to be or how long it would take. I’m excited to be here.”
The win meant more because of what Stricker went through last fall, when he fell ill and was ultimately hospitalized at UW Health University Hospital. His symptoms began with a high fever before tests revealed a high white blood cell count and low liver count. A lack of answers was frustrating and terrifying.
“It was going downhill, and we didn’t know why,” Stricker said. “My liver was in trouble. I turned yellow. I had jaundice. My lips puffed up, my tongue puffed up. My face was like an allergic reaction.”
Eventually Stricker’s fever subsided but he wasn’t out of the woods; he felt his heart racing, the result an “atrial flutter” in his heart that was tied to inflammation around the heart. He lost 25 pounds in the days that followed. A long, slow recovery began thereafter. He actually relished those couple months, he said, spending time away from his own golf game and focusing his energy on his family. When he finally returned to competition, he did so with them by his side. His wife Nicki caddied for him this week. She cried coming down No. 18.
This week’s event marked Stricker’s third in a row since returning from the illness. He’d looked good in his previous two, finishing T2 at the Insperity Invitational and T10 at the Mitsubishi Electric Classic. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it three weeks in a row, given his diminished strength. But he proved his own fears wrong with Sunday’s triumph and the return to victory. This meant something different than any other win in his storied career.
Stricker was choked up talking about the moment immediately afterwards.
“It’s a hard day, it’s been a long time,” he said, getting teary despite his best efforts. “I hate crying. But where I was last November even to a couple of months ago. To come full circle here and come out and get a W, it means a lot.”
Padraig Harrington birdied three of his final four holes to secure second place all alone at 15 under, while five players — Ernie Els, Rod Pampling, Stuart Appleby, Steven Aiker and Miguel Angel Jimenez — shared third at 14 under. They were all looking up at a deserving champ.