Steve Stricker is known the world over for his golf exploits. He most recently paired with Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup and has consistenly been among the top money winners on the PGA tour. He was presented with the Varsity "I" Association Achievement Award at a banquet Friday night. He remembers his special moment.
"This is really nice to come back. To get the award is very humbling. It's quite an honor to get that. It's pretty special. I'm a rotten speaker and a crybaby when I get up there. So there was a little bit of that last night, but I fought through it."
Equally important to Stricker was returning to the Illinois campus where he played his college golf.
"Getting back to a place that means so much to me is the bottom line. I feel very special here. People treat me unbelievably, and I feel a great connection to Illinois. It gives me great pride to give back to the golf team that I played on."
Like most alums, a tour of campus brought back many memories.
"It's nice to come back and not have to worry about playing golf but just experience college life again. We looked around town a little bit, saw all the new buildings, all the new facilities that's been going on in recent years. It's a good place to come back."
Stricker's college teammate Mike Small is the UI golf coach. Stricker supports the program and is impressed with what Small has done to elevate Illini golf.
"Its unbelievable. They're ranked sixth in the country right now, and he's got them going. First of all, he's got a bunch of good kids. (Scott) Langley, you won't meet a nicer kid and great player. And (Luke) Guthrie is great. He's got great kids and they're playing great. Mike's playing great, and it's good to see he's got the program heading in the right direction."
Stricker had a chance to play with Langley this past summer and liked what he saw.
"He's a great player. I played a practice round with him out there, nine holes at Pebble Beach. He's got a great short game, great putter. He's not overly long, but he's accurate, straight, and it showed. He finished 16th there at the U.S. Open. I see a bright future for the kid. He's got his head on his shoulders right; he's got all the perspective of life right in order. He's a good kid."
Stricker is grateful to have a little time off from the pressure of weekly championship events.
"Yeah, I don't play until the first two weeks in December. I still have four weeks off or so before those two events and then get ready for the new year.
"You've got to get away. Everybody needs a little time away. The end of the golf season is now pretty busy. I think I played seven of the last nine weeks. Worked the Ryder Cup on top of that. We have a lot of big-time events, a lot of pressure situations. It's nice to get away and recharge batteries."
Stricker was asked if he had a favorite tournament.
"I don't know, there's so many. I like going to Augusta every year, the Master's. It's a special place. There's nothing like the atmosphere there. The walk there, going to the Club, the whole thing is pretty special."
The Professional Golf Association has offered a $10 million award in recent years called the Fed Ex Cup for the golfer who accumulates the most points through quality play throughout the year, culminating in a playoff-style set of tournaments. Stricker thinks it adds excitement and competitiveness to the Tour.
"Yeah, I think it is (working out). There's a lot of money at stake. You want to play well and take advantage of that. It gets all the players together fighting for that trophy. I think the fans are catching onto it, players are getting more used to it. It's a lot of golf at the end of the year, but it provides some interest for everybody."
The Professional Golf Association has tried to modify the point system to maintain a competitive format throughout the season. A couple years ago, Vijay Singh won the Fed Ex Cup before participating in the final Championship. Stricker thinks it may receive some additional improvements.
"I think it's gonna be tweaked one more time. I don't know if it's ever gonna get perfect; there's always gonna be scenarios that don't quite mesh. So I think it's gonna be tweaked again, and hopefully it will be even better."