When I looked in the mirror, Steve Stricker realized how close he was to dying.
Stricker’s older brother, Scott, passed away in 2014 at age 51 after battling Crohn’s disease and undergoing a liver transplant. Stricker, 55, was in the midst of his second hospital stay with a host of serious issues, including Jaundice.
That’s why the reflection Stricker saw was so disturbing.
“My brother had some GI problems and I watched him go through that same stuff. I watched him turn yellow, his eyes were yellow and I’m looking in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m going down the same kind of road,'” Stricker said. “Although the problems were different, the look of turning yellow, my eyes were yellow, I’m peeing Coke-colored urine … that was probably the scariest part.”
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His mystifying illness started in late October 2021 with a sore throat and a bad cough. The PGA Tour Champions star was prescribed antibiotics and went deer hunting with his buddies. That night his side of him hurt and he spiked a fever of 103.
Hospitalized for the first time two weeks before Thanksgiving, Stricker was diagnosed with pericarditis and an irregular heartbeat, which at one point reached 160 beats per minute and remained that high for two hours. The numbers from his bloodwork — white and red cell counts, liver function tests — were alarming. He couldn’t eat solid food, could barely walk to the bathroom.
Stricker tested negative for COVID-19, but doctors at UW Health’s University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, were stumped. They still are.
“Everything was going south and they’re telling me they don’t know. It would have been probably easier if they’re like, ‘This is what’s going on,’ ” Stricker said in a telephone interview with the Beacon Journal on June 29. “They’re checking for all these big things — cancers, liver cancer, liver problems, and you’re just hoping and praying nothing’s going to come back with a bad reading. They took a biopsy of my liver. There were a whole bunch of things.
“Looking in the mirror and seeing what I looked like was not very comfortable, just knowing what my brother went through.”
Stricker spent six months away from golf. I have lost 25 to 30 pounds. He joked to Gary D’Amato of Wisconsin. Golf in January that he looked like an 85-year-old man with his skin hanging.
“It seems almost cliché, life is short, but I think that really hits home … to think that we were pretty close to losing him,” Stricker’s wife, Nicki, told the Beacon Journal, also thinking of their two daughters, Bobbi and Izzi .
In terms of where he was in November, Stricker has made a stunning recovery. Returning to competition on April 29, he has a win, two seconds, and five top 10s in six Champions Tour events, including a triumph in his fourth senior major, the Regions Tradition, on May 15.
Stricker will be back in Akron, Ohio, to defend his title in the $3 million Bridgestone Senior Players Championshipwhich opens Thursday at Firestone Country Club, just as amazed as everyone else by his 2022 performance.
“I’ve got this faith that I’m going to go out there and play well, even if I’m not feeling 100%,” Stricker said. “I feel like all the Champions Tour players have some sort of ailment or problem. It’s getting better, no question. It’s a process. I lost it in a short period of time, but I think it’s going to take me longer to get it back to where I feel like I was before it happened.”
How Stricker started regaining his strength had its lighthearted moments.
He had no appetite and no strength to eat, but no saliva, either. He believes it was due to medications, which included a beta blocker and a blood thinner, because once he started to wean off those of him, his dry mouth improved.
“I could try to drink a smoothie or something like that, but nothing even tasted good,” Stricker said. “(Nicki) tried to bring me Culver’s shakes or shakes from the hospital and I would drink a little bit. Who doesn’t like a Culver’s shake, right? I didn’t have any appetite, no energy to eat. Even when I got home, I had a hard time eating for another month and that’s why I lost so much weight.”
Thanks to a daughter’s trips to Dunkin’, Munchkins donut holes became his “fix.” He tried to eat one and wash it down with something. Then it was Culver’s shakes.
“I would get some French fries and dip it in the shakes so I could get it down,” Stricker said. “It was all these little little things.”
His old favorite soft drink, Sun Drop, provided another story.
“When my heart was out of rhythm, I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to have half a Sun Drop,'” Stricker said. “Sugar and all that is probably not good for your heart and I hadn’t been drinking any of that kind of stuff for a couple months. No alcohol. Wouldn’t you know my heart goes back into rhythm that afternoon after I had the soda in the morning? I attributed it to Sun Drop. Nicki and the kids roll their eyes, ‘There’s no way.’
“Then I get back on this Sun Drop kick for a little while. Now I’m off it again. That’s my one vice. I like to have a Coke. I gave up Sun Drop, now I’m on a Coke a day kind of thing. Thinking I need to get rid of that, too.”
Through the crisis, Stricker never lost faith that he would recover.
“It was a test for him in the hospital at night when he was there by himself, just the mental, he’s said that, that was the hardest thing he’s ever done,” Nicki said. “It was just kind of trusting what we were hearing and then, just a faith that no matter what, it was going to be OK.”
Stricker relied on the positive, upbeat attitude that has always characterized him.
“I felt like, ‘I’ll get through this,’ ” he said. “The one good thing is when they were drawing these samples of blood and coming back and saying, ‘Nope, we’re not seeing anything. There’s no cancer. There’s no other issues. We’ve checked all these major things and nothing. ‘ So I’m like, “OK, it’s like an inspection of your car. They checked everything and nothing came back.” I’m like, ‘OK, that’s good news.’
“Even though they were telling me, ‘We can’t find it,’ I was taking that as, ‘OK, I’ve dodged another bullet, really, of something they were looking for.’ “
Nicki Stricker said her husband is “just kind of wired that way” to remain positive.
“He obviously had some struggles in ’05 and ’06, so that kind of comeback isn’t anything mentally new to him,” she said.
Stricker said the pressure of serving as Ryder Cup captain for the Americans’ 19-9 victory over the Europeans at Whistling Straits might have played a part.
“All that stress for the last few years, especially the last month, and how your body just kind of takes a deep breath after it’s over and let’s go,” he said. “All that comes to a head, right, probably? Who knows?”
But that is not foremost in his mind.
“Deep down I just had a feeling I had a reaction to this vaccine,” Stricker said. “You’ve read about the vaccine and myocarditis or pericarditis. Maybe I had a virus of some sort that caused it that they can’t put a name to, which they said is possible. …”
He eventually did get COVID-19, which forced him to withdraw from the Senior PGA Championship on May 24. He said during a June 15 conference call he felt that set him back again.
When Stricker says he’s lucky to be alive, that’s no longer a cliché.
“Yeah, even though I’ve worked on my health and tried to stay healthy and active, I’ve always kind of taken it for granted,” he said. “I feel like bulletproof. That showed how fast things can really turn and sometimes you have no control over it. So that was a wakeup call for sure.”
Nicki Stricker is not looking back for answers. She’s more focused on the future and what they gained from Stricker’s rough six months. Steve is excited that daughter Bobbi played in an Epson Tour event, the Island Resort Championship, in Michigan last month with Nicki on her bag de ella and may get in a few more of those events. Izzi recently shot 74 and was the low qualifier for an upcoming AJGA event in Wisconsin.
“The way I look at it, the important thing is what he’s learned from it, whether it’s about himself, what’s important to him,” Nicki said. “There’s just been a shift in him about what really does matter. Not like I felt that those things we all feel as a family are important weren’t, I think they’re just looked at a little bit differently.
“It’s given us all a different perspective. The effect that it’s had on the girls, not that they didn’t appreciate their dad and they didn’t love their dad, you just look at it a little differently. If you have a faith that things happen for a reason, it’s like, ‘What good came out of this?’ I think we keep seeing that every day.”
Follow Marla Ridenour on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism