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Native Son: Stricker Revved Up, Relieved

June 13, 2017 Erin, Wis. By Steve Stricker
Steve Stricker will play in his 20th U.S. Open when he tees it up at Erin Hills, the first U.S. Open in his home state of Wisconsin. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

On June 5, Steve Stricker shot 65-67 to capture medalist honors in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Memphis and earn a spot into this week’s championship at Erin Hills. The native of Madison, Wis., competed in his first U.S. Open in 1993 at Baltusrol Country Club, advancing through both local and sectional qualifying.

On Thursday, the sound I am most looking forward to hearing is the starter’s announcement: “Now on the tee, from Madison, Wisconsin, Steve Stricker.” I’ll take a moment, acknowledge the applause – and then hopefully stripe a drive down the middle of the fairway.

Having the U.S. Open in Wisconsin for the first time means a great deal to all of us who live here. We love our sports, and this is the biggest championship in golf. It’s pretty cool to have the world’s best players come here so we can show off our state.

It means a lot to play in my 20th U.S. Open here at Erin Hills. Not getting a special exemption from the USGA was a motivating factor. Not that I deserved one, but it’s been driving me to achieve this goal. I’m just happy that I’m going to get to play.

Erin Hills is a fantastic venue. It’s a big property and a challenging, strategic golf course on rolling farmland. It’s a beautiful spot that depicts what Wisconsin is all about. The hometown fans will be into it – they understand golf and appreciate good shots.

I’ve loved the U.S. Open for as long as I can remember. My dad was a big golf fan and we watched a lot of tournaments together on Sundays. When Andy North won his second U.S. Open in 1985, I recall thinking how cool it was that someone from down the road was lifting that trophy. He was someone I wanted to be like, and to be friends with him today is pretty surreal.

I played in my first U.S. Open in 1993, at Baltusrol, and I had to go through local and sectional qualifying to get there. I was excited just to play in the qualifier, and one advantage we had in Wisconsin was that Gene Haas, of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, set up our qualifiers in championship-level conditions. We were prepared for whatever came next, and I was pumped to make it through local and then survive the 36-hole sectional qualifying gauntlet in Chicago.

My most vivid memory from Baltusrol is that I made the cut right on the number, but I had to wait a long time to know my fate. It came down to Lee Janzen, the eventual champion – if he had birdied the par-5 18th hole to finish his second round, it would have knocked a bunch of us out. Thankfully, he ended up making a par. I remember feeling this strong sense of relief. And as a young pro with no status yet on any tour, I learned some valuable lessons that week that helped me in my career.

Another U.S. Open that sticks in my mind is 1990 at Medinah, when Hale Irwin made that long putt on 18 and ran around the green high-fiving the fans. That just epitomizes the excitement of the U.S. Open. Hale also set the record that week as the oldest U.S. Open champion (45). I turned 50 this past February, so this week I’ll have another chance to take his place in the record book.

The U.S. Open challenges every aspect of your game. It identifies the complete player during the championship – the guy who’s hitting it the best, putting it the best, managing his game and his emotions. Everything from the rough to the firm, fast conditions is just a little more difficult than any other week.

The buzz has been building across Wisconsin for a long time, and sometimes it crops up in places you don’t expect. In the middle of winter, when folks are typically thinking more about Badgers basketball and ice fishing, I was at my local bank and the teller asked me, “Hey, are you going to be playing in the U.S. Open?”

I smiled and told her, “That’s the plan.” It’s a relief to get to play in the first one in my home state.

Steve Stricker has four top-10 finishes in 19 U.S. Open starts.