Four police cars cleared a path through Alabama, beginning Steve Stricker’s journey back to Bethpage.
Just hours after celebrating, and weeping, and holding up the Regions Tradition trophy, Stricker was escorted to a Birmingham airport for a Monday night flight to New York. When Tuesday came, he decided practice for the PGA Championship could wait another day.
He knows what to expect of Bethpage Black.
“I had intentions of going out there, but just never got motivated enough to do it,” Stricker said Wednesday. “You know, I’ve played here enough. The course is right in front of you, and it’s going to come down to executing the shots and hitting them. So I’m going to try to conserve as much energy as I can going forward.”
Whatever happens in his 21st PGA Championship, Stricker has already enjoyed one of the greatest weeks of his playing career. Stricker, who has 12 PGA Tour victories but has never captured a PGA major championship, just claimed his first-ever major on the Champions Tour. The 52-year-old plans to continue playing on both tours.
“To win one out here, this is the next level, I guess,” Stricker said following the victory. “To show myself that I’m able to handle the heat down the end on the last day. … I’ll take a lot from that.”
Stricker has showcased championship-level form at multiple PGA Championships.
He was the runner-up to Vijay Singh in 1998. He is tied for the best-ever 18-hole score in the event’s history, shooting a 63 in the 2011 first round. He has the fourth-lowest scoring average (71.11) of players with at least 50 PGA Championship rounds, and ranks 10th all-time with 31 sub-par rounds.
But Bethpage hasn’t been as kind to the Ryder Cup captain. Playing in the 2002 U.S. Open, 2009 U.S. Open, and both fields of The Barclays (2012, 2016), Stricker has never finished higher than 16th, and never shot better than 3-over par.
“I just remember, you’ve got to be patient,” Stricker said. “You make your pars. I think hitting it in the fairway, knocking it on the green, making pars and parring it to death is going to be a good score this week.
“Length is always an issue. If you can drive it long and straight, you’re going to have an advantage. But again, I think guys with moderate length can play if they get it in the fairway. If they can hit more fairways, then typically those kind of players are more accurate. If they can hit it in the fairway and play from the fairway more times, I think that’s going to count for something.”
After Monday, what counts has shifted.
“Winning last week has kind of changed my focus maybe a little bit, maybe gearing more towards some of those Champions Tour majors and trying to win more of those,” Stricker said. “That was fun. I’ve never been able to win one of those. So that was a neat experience.
“But I’m very happy to be here, too.”