By DOUG FERGUSON
KAPALUA, Maui — At the end of another long year, and only a month away from the start of another season, Steve Stricker quietly posed a question that sounded out of place for a guy with more than $25 million in PGA Tour earnings over the last six years.
“What if I went to Kapalua to defend and didn’t play again the rest of the year?”
When he arrived on the shores of Maui for the season-opening Tournament of Champions, he had reached a compromise. Stricker, who turns 46 next month, is going into semi-retirement. When he leaves Kapalua, he won’t return again until the Match Play Championship at the end of February.
He’ll play the majors and World Golf Championships that are held in America, maybe a few other tournaments to get ready for the majors, and the John Deere Classic, which has become his hometown event ever since the Greater Milwaukee Open went away.
“I’ve proved to myself I could come back,” said Stricker, once mired in a slump so severe he was voted PGA Tour comeback player — two years in a row. “I had a great run the last six years. I think it’s just the travel, the time away. When I get home, I’m not there. I’m focused on where I go next. When I do something, I’m in it. I’ve had enough of being totally focused on golf and my life. And I wanted to not have it be about me anymore.”
Stricker is wired differently from most. He gets as much pleasure taking his kids to school in Wisconsin as winning golf tournaments. He would rather spend his fall in a deer stand with a bow than on the practice green with his putter.
He has been thinking about cutting back for the last few years, only the decision was never easy. Not when he was as high as No. 2 in the world, a regular on U.S. teams in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.
Even with some winter stubble after nine holes of practice on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, he looked fresh and ready to go.
“I’m excited about the year because I finally made this decision to scale back,” he said. “You know me. I’ve been this way since Day One. I’ve never played a lot. I enjoy my time at home, and I’ve tossed around this idea with my family the last couple of years. Finally making a decision to scale back has lifted a little bit of a burden from me. I’m just as excited to play this week as I’ve ever been.”
Stricker won the Tournament of Champions a year ago for his 12th career win, although that turned out to be the highlight of his year. In one of the more peculiar trends, he became the third straight player to win the PGA Tour’s opener and not win again the rest of the year.
He faces a 30-man field of PGA Tour winners that is missing some of the top stars, no longer unusual in this global landscape of golf with Europeans competing deep into November and some international players, such as Ernie Els, starting next week in South Africa. Among those absent from Kapalua are Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Luke Donald and Justin Rose, the top four players in the world ranking.
Stricker won’t see many of them until he gets to Arizona for the Match Play Championship.
At least he’s not walking away entirely. Over the last few weeks, he looked at the schedule and didn’t feel he could miss the big events, particularly the majors. He hasn’t set a number of events he wants to play, but it will be somewhere around 10.
What to do with all that free time? It won’t be limited to a car pool or a deer stand. Stricker is forming a foundation with a new sponsor, American Family Insurance, with the goal of helping adolescents. The seed money comes from the charity donation he received for winning the Payne Stewart Award and playing on the Ryder Cup team.
His other sponsors — Titleist, Avis and the New York Stock Exchange — are behind his decision to cut back. Stricker has restructured his endorsement deals because he is playing less, and he plans to do more personal days with clients.
“I was prepared to lose all that, I really was,” Stricker said. “For the most part, they’re happy for me.”
He still hasn’t talked to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. Stricker is one of the most popular figures on tour because of the way he treats people. For now, this semi-retirement does not include The Players Championship or even the FedEx Cup playoffs, even if he has a reasonable shot at the $10 million bonus.
He would play the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup if he qualifies. With his limited schedule, he would be playing some good golf.
And yes, he’ll still practice. His 14-year-old daughter, Bobbi Maria, is a natural athlete who is getting into golf. There were a few times last year she wanted to go to the golf course with his dad, but Stricker feared he wouldn’t get any work done on his game.
“Now I can put in some time with her,” Stricker said. “She’s talked about hitting more balls in the winter. I can spend more time with her doing that, and playing with her in the summer if she wants to.”
The strongest part of her game? Stricker smiled.
“She putts good,” he said.
Part of Stricker wishes he had done this sooner, but the time didn’t seem right. He would emerge from his fall break to play in the World Challenge hosted by Tiger Woods, and then Greg Norman’s Shootout in Florida, and he found himself not wanting to leave.
“The coolest part is I’m playing as good as I ever have,” Stricker said. “I’ve accomplished a lot of things. I proved to myself I can come back from where I was and I played great for an extended period of time. The major thing is missing, but that’s not hugely important to me. I don’t have to win a major. Obviously, I’d love to. But it’s not going to define who I am. It’s all good. I feel like I’m doing this for the right reason.
“I felt like it would be a bold move a couple of years ago, and I think it’s a bold move now,” he said. “Some people might think it’s not a good idea. But I think it is for me.”