By Larry Fine
ERIN, Wisconsin (Reuters) – He walked to the 18th green to a rousing ovation and left it as the U.S. Open clubhouse leader, though at five under par Steve Stricker eventually finished 11 strokes behind winner Brooks Koepka.
Yet with the current Big Three of the rankings — Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day — all making early exits outside the cut line, home-grown veteran Stricker was the uncontested crowd favorite at Erin Hills.
“It was really cool,” Stricker told reporters about the stirring support he received all week and the final hole ovation at the state’s first hosting of a U.S. Open.”Yeah, I don’t get those very often. So it was pretty cool to get that, and to play well today on top of it was extra special.”
Stricker paid back his supporters on Sunday with a three-under-par 69 in windy conditions on the long, links-style layout.
A 12-times winner on the PGA Tour and the U.S. captain for this autumn’s Presidents Cup, Stricker was denied a request for a special exemption into the field and had to qualify.
“I’m glad I made it here. I’m glad I qualified and was able to play. It was a pretty special week all around. We had a great time. My wife was on the bag. My kids were here. And it was a very special week to be here,” he said.
In the end, the 50-year-old Stricker marveled at the way the young, big hitters handled Erin Hills, which at around 7,800 yards was the longest course ever for a U.S. Open.
“At the start of the week I was thinking five-under would maybe win this thing, and I was pretty far off,” he said.
“I don’t know if I have 14-under in my bag to play. These guys play a different game.”
Without much wind until Sunday and with rains during the week softening the greens for long-distance approach shots, scores were lower than expected.
Still, Stricker was struck by the players’ power.
“A three-wood 300 yards yesterday for Justin Thomas,” he said, referring to Thomas’s approach to the par-five 18th that led to an eagle for a U.S. Open record score of nine-under 63. “I don’t hit my driver 300 yards. These guys have a lot of firepower.
“This is the new age of golf. They bomb it. If they hit it crooked, they’ll bomb it again. They’ve got no fear and they’re gutsy players, and they’re little bulldogs and they’re just relentless.”
(Editing by Andrew Both)