By almost any standard, Steve Stricker has had a remarkable career. Nine of his 12 PGA Tour wins have come since he turned 40. Only four players in tour history have more wins after crossing that threshold.
This week in Silvis, Ill., the 45-year-old Wisconsin native will be trying to win his fourth straight John Deere Classic. Last year at TPC Deere Run, the former University of Illinois star birdied the final two holes on Sunday to beat Kyle Stanley by a shot.
Stricker's victory was the 21st time a tour player had won the same event three years in a row. Going a combined 68-under par over the past three years at Deere Run, a fourth win is easily within his grasp.
But what does another John Deere Classic victory mean for Stricker's career and his chances to finally get a major championship?
More wins in this middle-tier event will only serve to burnish Stricker's legacy as a competent PGA Tour winner. But competent isn't a very memorable mark to leave on the game, especially when you're as good as he is.
Yet careers are sustained by wins at events like the John Deere. There are only four majors a year. Jack Nicklaus won six green jackets, but he also took three Portland Open Invitationals. In 2011, Stricker's victories at the John Deere and the Memorial helped vault him to third in the official world golf ranking. After almost falling off the tour during a few abysmal years in in the mid-2000s, he is now comfortably settled within the tour elite.
Winning anywhere is good for a player's confidence. For the ambitious, each victory represents a small step toward greatness and the cumulative efforts of all the hours spent on the driving range. But the meaning of any given win varies from player to player. Taking the Greenbrier Classic meant something very different to Ted Potter Jr. than it would have for Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, who both missed the cut at the West Virginia event. Potter now has a two-year exemption on the tour that will give him a modicum of job security and a spot in his first Open Championship next week.
Woods and Mickelson were merely making a pit stop through West Virginia on their way to Royal Lytham. If one of them had won the Greenbrier, our first reaction would have been to ask what the win says about his chances in the Open Championship.
Stricker is good enough to provoke those kinds of questions. He is way past the point in his career where we should be asking him what another regular tour win does for his confidence. He has reached a place where the only thing missing is a major championship.
Stricker is one of 27 players with at least 10 PGA Tour wins to not have a major championship. Being in the same company with the likes of Doug Sanders, who had 20 victories in his long career, isn't the worst fate for a player, but for all those wins, including the 1956 Canadian Open as an amateur, the dapper-dressing Sanders is best known for missing a three-foot putt to win the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews.
At the 2009 Masters, Kenny Perry had an opportunity to break out of that class of double-digit winners with zero majors, but nerves derailed his chances at the end of regulation and in the playoff. With 14 wins, Perry had a nice regular tour record, but he will probably be most remembered for finishing bogey-bogey in regulation to lose a two-shot lead and his grasp on the green jacket.
At least Perry and Sanders were on the cusp of fulfilling the potential that comes with many wins. The closest Stricker has come to this kind of moment was at the 1998 PGA, where he finished second, two shots behind Vijay Singh. In his other eight top-10s in 55 major appearances, he didn't really sniff the winner's circle.
Yet the two-time Ryder Cup golfer has earned this scrutiny. No one talks about an unknown deserving a major or a journeyman such as Todd Hamilton, who was a 38-year-old tour rookie when he won the Open Championship at Royal Troon in 2004. The attention is rightly steered toward players with pedigree.
If you win enough on tour, people will start talking about you as a favorite at the majors. Eventually you will earn the inventive tag of best player to have never won a major. Tom Kite seemingly owned this moniker for years before he captured the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach at the age of 42. By then Kite had won 16 times on tour and was high on the career money list, but he was still in the shadow of his former Texas teammate and childhood friend Ben Crenshaw. The win at Pebble Beach lifted some of that burden and legitimized him as a Hall of Famer.
Perhaps Stricker isn't overwhelmed by the pressure or preoccupied with thoughts of what winning a major might do for his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame. Yet his time is running out to put a distinguishing mark on his career. Last month at the U.S. Open, where he owns three top-10s, Stricker was asked if he ever got to the point where he started to think that it was his turn to win an Open.
"I don't come into an event, any event, thinking about winning," he said. "I think about trying to play well, and what it leads to from there is another thing, I guess.
"I'm 45. My chances are probably dwindling a little bit, but I still feel like my game is pretty good. I do a lot of good things still, I think."
It can't hurt Stricker to play well this week at Deere Run. Last year after winning there he had a good week at Royal St. Georges with a tie for 12th. Playing the Scottish Open instead of the John Deere as a kind of one-week crash course on links conditions won't guarantee better results at Royal Lytham. In 2007 and 2008, when Stricker had a T-8 and T-7, respectively, in the Open Championship, he took the week off before the tournament.
A fourth win at the John Deere would cement his reputation as the greatest player in the event's 42-year history. It's good capital for down the road. He'll move closer to locking up a spot on the Ryder Cup team and earn some important world ranking points. These are longitudinal markers of a good season, but they don't have the fortification that comes with a major championship.
Come Sunday night, Stricker wouldn't be big timing the tractor kings if he tells them that he hopes his dominance over their event is finally the impetus for him to get more important wins that might transform him from being Mr. John Deere Classic to Champion Golfer of the Year.