The sun was setting, literally and figuratively, on Steve Stricker, and he knew that as well as anyone as he strode toward the shuttle pickup area. A van was about to whisk him, his wife, Nicki, and the couple's two daughters away from Merion Golf Club and, oh, yeah, the pages of golf history.
Moments earlier, Stricker had stood with Phil Mickelson. The sentimental Open favorites had just seen America's national championship slip uneasily from their grasps again. Stricker, 46, was looking to become the oldest Open champion ever and a first-time major winner. Mickelson, 43, carries a gunfighter's swagger and the weight of history. Like Sam Snead, Lefty has never won an Open. This one was another heartbreak and, remarkably, the sixth time Phil finished second, an unenviable record he has surely put out of reach.
Steve Loy, Mickelson's former college coach and his longtime agent, approached Stricker and broke into a smile. "Sorry we had a bad day together," Loy told Stricker, sharing a handshake with look-me-in-the-eye sincerity. "I was hoping for something better, for either one of you."
Stricker nodded in appreciation and answered quietly, "Me, too."
They shared the burn of disappointment and looked past the unspoken truth. Golf is a fickle game, and Stricker or Mickelson may never pass this way again. Golfers never know when they've had their last starring role on the big stage.
That time is closer than ever for Stricker. This year he took a page from the Byron Nelson playbook and cut back his schedule. Nelson retired at 34, at the peak of his powers. The pressure, the travel—he'd simply had enough. Stricker has semiretired, also at the peak of his powers. The pressure, the travel—he, too, has had his fill, especially in the wake of last year's traumatizing Ryder Cup loss at Medinah.
This role of part-time PGA Tour player, however, has been amazing. The Open was only Stricker's seventh tournament this year. In his first six starts he had two runner-up finishes, a fifth and a 20th at the Masters. At Merion on Sunday, he had a chance to win, starting the final round a shot back of Mickelson. Those hopes died ugly and early, but he rallied to tie for eighth with a six-over-par 76.
His respectable finish will be overshadowed by his unsightly drop down the leader board. At the par-5 2nd hole, he blocked a tee shot past the trees, over Ardmore Avenue and out-of-bounds. After reloading and hitting the fairway, he shanked a four-iron that also screamed out-of-bounds. He holed a lengthy putt for a good triple bogey, if there is such a thing.
Stricker had no explanation. "I felt pretty good today," he said, then joked, "but I may not have looked like it."
He bogeyed the next hole too, a 266-yard par-3 into the wind. Two holes, four over par and one long struggle. Stricker, who has teed it up in 59 majors, has had his chances over the years. At Olympic and Sahalee way back in 1998. At Winged Foot in 2006. At Oakmont and Carnoustie in '07. This was another. "I thought maybe this would be one of those days," he said, "that maybe I'd have a chance on the last couple of holes. It just didn't happen. I'll keep plugging. It's not getting any easier."
His next major opportunity won't come until the PGA Championship in August. Stricker will play the John Deere Classic in July, an event he once won for three straight years, but not the British Open the following week. "I think I already missed the entry deadline," he said.
He is serious about the part-time thing. In defeat he was just as pleased to talk about how much fun his family had in the Philadelphia area, including their almost-nightly excursions to Froyo, a premium frozen yogurt store (they are from Wisconsin, America's Dairyland, y'know), and how Nicki, Bobbi and Isabella visited the zoo and saw the Liberty Bell.
"It was a great week," said Dad. He didn't win the Open at Merion, but as he herded his crew toward the waiting shuttle van, an arm around each daughter's shoulder, it was clear that winning wasn't necessary to make Sunday a happy Father's Day.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
EARLY EXIT One back at the start of play on Sunday, Stricker was undone by a triple bogey at the 2nd, where he hit two balls out-of-bounds.