Steve Stricker was back on the golf course for the first time in six months, walking 18 holes for three days and feeling optimistic as ever after a fifth-place finish.
The result belonged to his daughter, Bobbi Maria, who competed on the East Coast Women’s Pro Golf Tour at Rio Pinar last month.
Stricker was her caddy.
“I pushed her cart around,” Stricker said Tuesday. “I was fine. I made it three days in a row. I’m thinking everything will be OK. But this will be a little different.
The real test starts Friday outside Houston at the Insperity Invitational, where Stricker returns to the PGA Tour Champions after a mysterious illness that hospitalized him, scared him and caused him to lose so much weight his skin was starting to sag.
He said doctors still don’t know what caused his white blood cell count to spike, his liver count to plunge and the inflammation around his heart that caused it to pump out of rhythm.
He said they haven’t ruled out a reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine — he was vaccinated about a month before the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits — because Stricker says he is steadfast when it comes to annual bloodwork and he has never been on any medication.
“All of a sudden, my liver is on the fritz, I turn yellow,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense that I could get that sick.”
The timing of it put a damper on what otherwise was a glorious moment. Stricker devoted three years as Ryder Cup captain — the matches were postponed one year because of the pandemic — and it culminated at home in Wisconsin when his young and fearless American team handed Europe its worst loss ever, 19-9.
“I never won a major, but this is my major right here,” he said that September day.
A month later, Stricker came in from bow hunting and didn’t feel right. His side of it ached. His temperature rose to 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius). Stricker was hospitalized for 11 days, getting out in time for Thanksgiving, only to be admitted again. His weight plunged to 163 pounds (73.9 kg).
Thus began the slow road back, and Stricker now is looking forward.
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I have turned 55 in February. He doesn’t need golf, and it doesn’t define him. But that’s his passion for him, and his wife and two daughters are just as excited about him playing again. So it’s a family affair. That defines him.
Stricker tried taking a few swings on his simulator in their basement in Wisconsin in December. They headed to Florida — they are building a small house in Isleworth — and he began to chip and putt.
His winter home previously was in Naples — Stricker spent a Sunday morning packing boxes after the house sold, and Sunday afternoon winning the Chubb Classic — but Isleworth gives him more games and more family involvement.
He has played in recent weeks with Retief Goosen and Andy Zhang, who qualified for the US Open at Olympic Club when he was 14. Stricker’s wife, Nicki, is taking lessons from Grant Waite, and that’s where she was on Tuesday morning.
“I can’t help her anymore. No matter what I say, it’s wrong,” Stricker said with a laugh.
He said he is about 10 pounds lighter than before he got sick, and he is still working to gain muscle and endurance. Stricker has never been away from golf this long. Even when he had surgery on his back from him at the end of 2014, he returned for the Masters in April.
Six months feels like a lot longer, and it some respects, it has recharged him even as he tries to get back to full strength.
“I have a little different look on things from where I was,” he said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to get out and play. I’m going there feeling like I can complete, but also knowing I’ve got a way to go. My cardiologist said I probably won’t feel right for a year from the time I was in the hospital.”
His plan is to play three straight weeks on the PGA Tour Champions — The Woodlands, the TPC Sugarloaf outside Atlanta and then the first senior major of the year in Alabama.
He might consider the Memorial if he’s playing well and doesn’t feel as though he would be taking a spot from someone in the field. Stricker made the cut in six of the nine PGA Tour events he played last year, his best a tie for fourth in the Phoenix Open.
What matters is he’s playing, and that looked a long way off at one point. His wife of him will be on the bag at The Woodlands this week. His daughters of him are coming along.
The tour posted to video of Stricker over the weekend when he decided to play the Insperity Invitational. He spoke of a recent conversation with Ed Beard, his golf coach at Illinois, in which Stricker said he was “all in” whether it was golf or family, hunting or fishing.
“It’s giving me the opportunity to … get stronger again, to have this focus on getting back all in to the golf,” he said. “And, again, my family wants it, too. I mean, Nicki is excited for us to get back out there. My kids are antsy for me to play events again. So it’s a family thing and they’re excited for me to get back after it.”