Known for his affability, determination, and all-around good-guy approach to golf, inside and outside the ropes, Steve Stricker has earned the 2012 Payne Stewart award.
Stricker will receive the honor, named for the player who best shares the late Stewart’s respect for golf’s traditions, rectitude, and support for charitable causes, in a private ceremony Tuesday night as part of the run-up to this week’s Tour Championship. The 45-year-old Wisconsin native is in the 30-player field for this week’s FedEx Cup finale and will make his third appearance in the Ryder Cup starting on September 28.
“This award means a great deal to the players on the PGA Tour, and I am truly grateful to be the recipient of the Payne Stewart Award,” Stricker said in a statement. “I take great pride in being recognized for the values that the Payne Stewart Award stands for. I was fortunate enough to spend time with and compete against Payne, and I watched how he handled himself on the course, with his fellow competitors, with the fans and volunteers.
“I hope that by leading by example, just as Payne did, that our younger players will follow in the traditions of sportsmanship, integrity and charitable efforts that he helped bring to our sport,” said Stricker.
Stewart, who died tragically the week of the 1999 Tour Championship, was a World Golf Hall of Famer and 11-time tour winner. He is never far from Stricker’s thoughts.
“I mentioned how I think of Payne, and I do,” Stricker told PGATour.com’s Bob Verdi. “More than you would think. Whenever I get on an airplane, leaving a young family behind, going to do my job. Payne was on top of the world, and then he’s gone. Terrible. Terrible tragedy. You just have to be thankful, and I am. We have such a great sport, so clean, good people. I’m so proud to be a part of it. I’m enjoying my time out here more than I ever have. I’ve seen it all, lived through it all, and I got through it. This is really a privilege to play on the PGA Tour, a game I grew up with, that’s in my blood.”
Stricker owns 12 tour titles and is currently No. 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, but he has not always been on top of the golf world. He experienced a winless skid during the 2003-2005 seasons that dropped him to 331st on the OWGR roster and seriously tested his desire to continue playing the game he loved.
After failing to earn his 2006 tour card, Stricker made good use of sponsors’ exemptions and rebounded that year to capture seven top-10 finishes and cadge the tour’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
Two second-place results and a win at the first FedEx Cup playoff event, The Barclays, in 2007, earned Stricker an unprecedented second straight Comeback Player honor. He has continued as a model of consistency, winning multiple times in the 2009 (including the Deutsche Bank Championship at TCP Boston), 2010, and 2011 seasons. He also lifted the trophy at the 2012 season-opening Tournament of Champions.
Among his many charitable endeavors, Stricker has dedicated himself to using golf as a way to give back to those in need, especially children and adults with disabilities. Stricker’s wife Nicki, with whom he has two daughters (Bobbi and Isabella) occasionally caddies for her husband.
Stricker is the 15th recipient of the award, joining such luminaries as Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer.
“For years, Steve Stricker has epitomized everything that the Payne Stewart Award represents,” tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. “From his professionalism on the golf course to his compassion for others off of it, it is hard to think of a more fitting recipient.”
The one element Stricker does not share with Stewart is his attire.
“Dress,” Stricker said to Verdi. “Payne was very flamboyant and I am not. He was distinctive. The loudest thing I ever wear is maybe a neon green shirt. Payne stood out. I’m a blender.”
Aside from that, Stricker and the award go hand in hand. Tiger Woods has called his Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup playing partner “the nicest guy in the world.”
As Verdi noted, however, Woods’ description just barely scratches the surface of what makes Strick tick. Even during the dark times, when he practiced at a covered range in snowy Cheesehead territory, Stricker exhibited determination and decency under extremely trying circumstances.
“I was playing terribly for a while, driving the ball all over the place,” Stricker said. “I was burning up inside. I even thought of quitting at one point. But I tried to still treat people right.
“I didn’t know Payne that well. I played with him a few times,” Stricker added. “And I thought about him, because he had some down periods, too. He fought his way through it while conducting himself like a professional. Everybody remembers that picture of him, grabbing Phil Mickelson after he beat him on the last hole of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999. Telling Phil about how great an experience he was about to have, becoming a father for the first time. The next day. Very classy.”
For sure, golf fans may say the same about Stricker.
“I just try to be polite, respect them. That’s our sport,” he said to Verdi. “We play hard, we compete, we govern ourselves, we behave.”
Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. You may follow Kay on Twitter @golfexaminerWHAT'S YOUR REACTION?