ERIN -- It's not like Madison's Steve Stricker couldn't have found anything else to do this week if he hadn't made the field for the 117th U.S. Open.
Instead of participating in a news conference Tuesday afternoon, for example, he would've been in Racine caddying for his daughter Bobbi in the first round of the Wisconsin Women's State Open.
And while he would've been just fine with that, Stricker was justifiably excited to be at Erin Hills Golf Course, instead, preparing to compete in his 20th U.S. Open and the first ever in his home state.
"Very exciting to be here," Stricker said. "I wasn't sure I was going to be here, but very excited ... relieved. I worked hard to get here."
Stricker had to work his way into the 156-player field when the U.S. Golf Association turned down his request for a special exemption. While he has spoken of his disappointment about that rejection, he emphasized Tuesday that he knew all along it was a long shot and holds no grudges. He said USGA officials Mike Davis and Jeff Hall both called him and "just apologized to no end."
"I was fine with that, I really was. But then as I kept going on, I was like, you know, I really want to play here. This is our first U.S. Open. Then I had more and more people come up to me and say, hey, why aren't you in? And pretty soon it became a little chip on my shoulder that I had to work a little bit harder to try to get in."
Stricker took care of that by winning the qualifying tournament in Memphis.
"That was the most satisfaction that I've had in awhile," he said, "just knowing that I made it and I was going to be here to play. I feel like I belong here. No one gave me a spot. So as it all turned out, it was meant to be the way I did it and I feel better about the way I earned my way in here."
And now that he's here, Stricker, 50, is equally determined to make the most of what figures to be one of his last opportunities to compete in a major tournament.
"I go into every tournament expecting to play well and this is really no different," he said. "I'm going in thinking and trying to compete the best that I can and hopefully get in contention. That's my goal, to get in contention and see what happens."
And Stricker will have plenty of moral support as he takes to the course on Thursday afternoon. He has had big galleries for his practice rounds as the state's golf community rallies behind its favorite son.
"It's overwhelming at times, the amount of people that are coming up to me and wishing me luck," Stricker said. "The ovation I got when I went up on No. 9 yesterday ... yeah, it's pretty cool.
"Hopefully, I can play well to make it worth it on everybody's part. But it's special to be here. I'm looking to play well, that's the thing. I don't want to stop by just qualifying and being here ceremonial."
Ralph Nennig, Milwaukee, and Dan Surges, Greenfield, were among the throng that was following Stricker around Tuesday as he played a practice round with Jim Furyk, Brad Dalke and Joaquin Niemann.
"I follow him as much as I can," Nennig said. "He's good for Wisconsin golf. He inspires people. The guy's fantastic. He's 50 years old and he's sticking in there with young guys. It's just so good for the state to have someone who's well thought of nationwide, worldwide."
Surges said he's been following Stricker's career ever since Stricker was 14 and competing against Surges' son Larry in junior golf events around the state.
"I'm simply a golf fan, so I'd be out here today anyway," Surges said. "But the fact that Stricker is here is a bonus for me. He's just such a likeable guy."
While Stricker has gone 0-for-68 in major tournaments, he's been consistently competitive with 13 top-10 finishes. He's made the cut in his last 23 majors and just last year he finished fourth in the British Open, albeit 15 strokes behind the champion, Henrik Stenson.
Still, the fact that he beat all but three golfers in a premier event less than a year ago is a source of inspiration for Stricker.
"I really wasn't in contention, but I was up around the top," said Stricker. "So I can look back at some recent history for me to say that it's still possible. And this would be a cool spot to do it, I know that."
This article is written by Dennis Punzel from The Wisconsin State Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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