Somebody has to get the last spot in every pro golf tournament, and at the 1992 Northern Telecom Tucson Open, that last guy was Steve Stricker.
Someone withdrew the night before the first round and the three-time Wisconsin State Open champion was squeezed into a field that included Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Johnny Miller.
Stricker shot 81. He didn’t make a dime. Although he bounced back mightily a day later, shooting 70, he missed the cut by nine strokes and went back to the Canadian Tour for another two years.
Today, Steve Stricker has won more than $44 million in golf, which includes $255,000 for Sunday’s victory at the Cologuard Classic on the same piece of turf, the Omni Tucson National Resort, at which he finished 145th when he was just a kid.
Naturally, he got all choked up and you’d have thought he’d won the Masters.
If the champion of your golf tournament sheds tears, it’s a success.
Stricker, who turned 51 last month, qualified for the 1992 Tucson Open by finishing third in a mini-tour event at the old Arthur Pack Golf Course. To save money, he stayed at his aunt’s house in Tucson.
Now, all these years later, Stricker leads golf — all golf tours — in affability. There were probably 15,000 people at Tucson National on Sunday, and a good estimate is that 14,499 wanted Stricker to win.
No one wanted him to win more than the sponsors, Cologuard, the cancer-screening arm of Exact Sciences, a firm located in Madison, Wisconsin, which is essentially Stricker’s hometown.
A few years ago, Stricker and Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy were together watching their daughters play in a kids soccer game in Madison. On Sunday, they stood on the 18th green and marveled at how their roads led to Tucson at precisely the right moment.
“It’s crazy,” said Conroy.
Tucson has been at the business of pro golf since 1945, and it bows to few in historic memories. Arnie’s Army marched here — celebrated here — Phil Mickelson won three times and Tiger Woods staged one of the greatest comebacks in golf history at the 2008 WGC-Accenture Match Play championships.
At 4:47 p.m., Sunday, all of the elements that create lasting memories came together again.
Stricker stood in the middle of the fairway as about 5,000 people who jammed around the 18th green went silent. The stillness captured the moment: It was 70 degrees with a light breeze. The late-afternoon sun shimmered off two small lakes bisecting the feared 18th fairway.
It was a perfect day.
Judy McDermott, executive director of the Tucson Conquistadores, stood at the back of the 18th green. One good approach shot by Stricker would win the tournament.
“Everything came together,” she said. “The weather, this course, our new sponsor, a great field and the fact that we were able to move the tournament up two weeks from last year’s date. We didn’t have to conflict with the NCAA basketball tournament. I mean, look at the size of this crowd.”
The Tucson Open surely drew more people when Arnie and Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller won at Tucson National many years ago, but not by much. If the fourth Champions Tour event in Tucson is an indication of what lies ahead, it has been a much better choice than, say, asking the PGA Tour to give Tucson an event opposite the WGC championship in Mexico City.
It helps when Mr. Popularity wins, of course, and it helps when someone of Stricker’s stature buys in and puts on a clinic on how to perform in the clutch over the last nine holes.
About noon, Stricker saved a par after his tee shot played bumper-pool with a few trees on the No. 3 hole. After a 40-foot putt rolled to the lip of the cup, a man wearing a Wisconsin cap — Stricker is a noted Badger fan — turned and said to no one in particular, “Wow, he’s good.” Well, no kidding. Where’ve you been the last 25 years?
Stricker hadn’t won a genuine, full-field, regular-season event since the 2012 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but in those five years he rose to prominence.
Not by winning the John Deere Classic seemingly every summer, but by becoming one of America’s steadiest performers in multiple Ryder Cups, and as captain of the 2017 Team USA President’s Cup team.
As recently as two weeks ago, Stricker had not officially committed to play in the first Cologuard Classic. His name never appeared on the list of those who followed the necessary process to sign up for the 80 available spots.
Stricker was coming off two strong performances with all of the kids on the PGA Tour, finishing 26th at the AT&T Pebble Beach event and 31st in Phoenix’s Waste Management open. Some speculated that he wasn’t ready to commit to a regular schedule on the Champions Tour.
But McDermott and the Conquistadores weren’t worried.
“He reserved hotel rooms at the Omni,” said McDermott. “He had something to prove here, too.”
And, on Sunday, he proved it.