POTOMAC -- It was the start of a beautiful relationship that delivered victory at the Kemper Open yesterday, but Steve Stricker blushes when he recollects the first time he laid eyes on his wife and caddie, Nicki.
Stricker was a junior star in Wisconsin, but he turned down the recruiting pitch from Badgers coach Dennis Tiziani because he wanted to get away from home. In the summer before his junior year at Illinois, however, Stricker finally broke down and drove to Madison for some swing tips from Tiziani.
"It was the first lesson I ever got from him," Stricker said. "We were sitting together on a cart, and this girl came by and I nudged him, 'Who's that?' He said, 'That's my daughter.' We dated for a while, and their family kept asking me when I was going to ask her to marry me."
Six years after that 1987 encounter, the Strickers married. Steve joined the PGA Tour the following year, and Nicki has carried his bag ever since. It was a winning combination at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, where Stricker posted a water-logged 68 to finish 14-under par and take the soggy Kemper Open with a three-stroke cushion.
Stricker, who started the day a stroke off the lead, held off challenges from Grant Waite (66), Brad Faxon (67), Mark O'Meara (67) and Scott Hoch (68), who tied for second at 4-under. He also dealt with a steady rain, and in the process became the fifth first-time winner on the PGA Tour this year.
"We handled the pressure pretty well," Stricker said. "At times, I felt like we were running down fairways, but we had to keep holding it back. We talked about other things. We looked at the ducks and the geese, just tried to stay calm and patient.
"She [Nicki] wants it just as much as I do. I know it's harder on her this way, but I think she'd rather have it this way than being behind the ropes. There's definitely a calming effect, having her next to me. I want to win for her too, not just for myself. . . . I don't see Nicki joining the other wives on the patio."
Nicki, who played for her father at Wisconsin, needs only four strokes a side to compete with her husband.
"I couldn't do it, but she grew up playing golf and she knows the game," Hoch said, when asked if his wife had ever caddied for him. "She's as good a caddie as he could have. Obviously, she knows him pretty well. You could put another caddie on him, and he wouldn't do as well. You notice when somebody doesn't do well, but she hustles more than anybody."
"The best part of this is being together," Nicki said. "I can't think of a bad part. We're just trying to fulfill a dream that Steve's had. If we want to go home and talk about it [golf], that's OK. If he doesn't, that's fine too. We've got plenty of other things to talk about."
The Strickers will reminisce about a delightful walk in the rain that earned them a winner's check of $270,000, more than he had accumulated in his first 13 events this year.
He was one of four non-winners atop the leader board when the fourth round began, but Stricker had the best credentials, with thirds in the Hawaiian Open and the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic.
Jay Williamson, the third-round leader and Stricker's playing partner in the final pairing, did a Norman and blew up to an 8-over 79 and a tie for 23rd. David Toms and Brad Fabel acquitted themselves much better with 1-over 72s, and finished sixth and seventh, respectively.
The veterans moved up the leader board, but in the end they wavered, not Stricker.
Waite and O'Meara got to 12-under and within one stroke of Stricker with birdies at No. 13. Waite, a New Zealander, fell back with a bogey at No. 16, where a birdie in 1993 propelled him to victory here. O'Meara, whose $99,000 share of the $1.5 million purse moved him to No. 2 on the money list behind Phil Mickelson, bogeyed No. 15.
Faxon and Hoch just couldn't get any birdie putts to drop down the stretch.
Stricker took sole possession of the lead with a tap-in birdie at No. 5, and prospered on the par-5 No. 6 for the second straight day. On Saturday, Nicki told him to forget about laying up, and he was on in two for a two-putt birdie. Yesterday, his 6-iron approach set up a two-foot putt for eagle.
The only slip came on No. 9, the signature par-3 where Stricker was lucky to make bogey. He slipped on his rainpants, and parred the next six holes before icing it with a slick 7-iron to within 10 feet for a birdie on No. 16.
"I was under pressure, and I was fighting my swing at times, but it seemed like God was on our side," Stricker said. "I got a lot of good breaks out there. We felt it was our time to win."
It's not uncommon for a player and caddie to hug after a win, but this time there was a smack on the lips. Steve is 29 and Nicki is 27, and the working relationship will cease when it's time to start a family. It's been part of the plan ever since they married. How long have they been a couple?
"We were married in June 1993," Steve said.
"It was July," Nicki countered.
This was one instance when the caddie had the last word.
The winner . . .
S. Stricker 69-68-65-68-270
. . . and selected followers
G. Waite 72-66-69-66-273
B. Faxon 67-71-68-67-273
M. O'Meara 67-69-70-67-273
S. Hoch 69-68-68-68-273
C. Pavin 70-72-72-63-277
J. Daly 69-67-68-73-277
Pub Date: 5/27/96