Strickers keep love affair on the fairways

Paul Trow reports on the husband and wife team aiming for Open glory this week
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The Independent Online
In a world where the going rate of pay for caddies is 10 per cent of their masters' prize money, Nicki Stricker must be the equivalent of a lottery winner.

Whenever she picks up her pro's bag, her cut is never less than 50 per cent and she has the most binding contract of all - a marriage licence.

She is also the driving force behind the hottest player on the US tour: her husband has just won two prestigious titles - the Kemper and Western Opens - and become a candidate for next year's US Ryder Cup team.

At 29, Steve Stricker has everything - a golf game with no apparent weaknesses, money in the bank and a wife who keeps him on the straight and narrow, both in life and at Lytham, where tomorrow he makes his first appearance in the Open.

Today is Steve and Nicki's third wedding anniversary, but they have been inseparable, especially on a golf course, for the last nine years. Their relationship began when Nicki's father, Dennis Tiziani, the golf coach at the University of Wisconsin, started to instruct Steve even though he was studying at the rival University of Illinois.

"I turned down Dennis when he offered me a place, but he still told me that if I need any help to come and see him. I did OK in my junior year, but I wanted to be a better player so I did go to see him."

It wasn't just Dennis he started to see regularly. At that stage, Nicki, who is two years younger than Steve, had a budding golf game of her own and was one of her father's pupils.

"In those days I had a handicap of two," says Nicki. "I still play a little, but my handicap is more like six now." So why did she make the transition from playing to caddying? "Steve was playing in some amateur event and couldn't find a caddy. I knew his game well, so I volunteered. From that moment there was never any question of me not doing it.

"He does his own yardages - always has. I think he'd do them himself whether I was there or not. I'm happy with that - if there's a mistake it's not my fault. However, we talk about club selection a lot and he'll ask my opinion on the line of his putts if he can't decide himself.

"Does he lose his temper with me? Sometimes he needs to let off steam, but there will be times when that happens whoever the caddy is. I don't take it personally and we never get into an argument on the course. If we were at home, though, it might be different.

"Am I the best paid bagman on tour? That's what the other caddies say, but it's never been a big deal for me - money is not an issue. I get on well with them all, but initially I had to prove myself to them."

For such a high-profile couple, they are both remarkably shy, giving the impression the last thing they want is a prolonged spell in the limelight. But they also share an underlying stubbornness honed by years of struggle on mini-tours, and are content with their unconventional lifestyle.

"It works well because she's a good player in her own right," says Steve. "She understands the game, and me. We've progressed each year we've been together. I got my card at the qualifying school in November 1993, but I had already come close to winning the Canadian Open that year - I led after two rounds. Since then we've had some opportunities and I finally got there at the Kemper Open. Then came the Western Open. That was definitely the best I'd ever played."

A cursory glance at his record underlines it was never going to be long before he won. In 1994, his debut season, he finished 50th on the US money list with earnings of $334,409. The following year he was 40th with $438,931 before hitting the jackpot in 1996 with $925,932 to date. "He can be as good as he wants - he's the only one who stands in his way," says Nicki. "Once he realises his potential, it will be a case of seeing how he reacts."

Those are also his peers' sentiments. "He didn't know how good he was," says fellow American Billy Andrade, who was joint second in the Western Open, eight shots behind Stricker. "He's got the whole package. Greg Norman's got the whole package. Norman can hit a finesse shot, he can putt, he can hit the little chips and he can drive it as far as he wants. That's what Stricker's got."

"It's entirely up to him how good he wants to be," says the former US Open champion Lee Janzen. "If he wants to be the No 1 player in the world, he could do that."

From mini-tours to potential No 1 is a monumental leap by any standards, but the Strickers maintain a detached perspective. "The reason we do it is because it's fun and we always have a good time," says Nicki.

Even when suffering from jet lag. "We haven't had the two greatest practice rounds here, but we're getting adjusted," says Steve. "The travel time has been difficult. I came over last year but didn't qualify for the Open. It's tough coming all that way for so little, but it was a great learning experience."

Golfers have long careers these days, especially with the senior tour offering millions of dollars, so the Strickers could have another three decades of on-course companionship if they want it.

"I don't know if she'll be caddying then," says Steve. "We like each others company and I hope in 20 years time we'll still be travelling together."

And still on 50 per cent each? Now that would be like winning the lottery.