When he looked in the mirror, Steve Stricker realized how close he was to death.
Stricker’s older brother, Scott, died in 2014 at age 51 after battling Crohn’s disease and undergoing a liver transplant. Stricker, 55, was in the middle of his second hospital stay with a host of serious problems, including jaundice.
That’s why the reflection Stricker saw was so disturbing.
“My brother had some gastrointestinal issues and I watched him go through the same things. I was watching him turn yellow, his eyes were yellow, and I look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m on the same path,'” Stricker said. “Even though the issues were different, the type of yellowing, my eyes were yellow , peeing coke-colored urine … that was probably the scariest part.”
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His mysterious illness began in late October 2021 with a sore throat and a severe cough. The PGA Tour Champions star was prescribed antibiotics and went deer hunting with his friends. That night his side ached and he ran a temperature of 103.
First hospitalized two weeks before Thanksgiving, Stricker was diagnosed with pericarditis and an irregular heart rate that at one point reached 160 beats per minute and stayed that high for two hours. His blood test numbers—white and red blood cell counts, liver function tests—were worrisome. He could not eat solid food, he could barely go to the toilet.
Stricker tested negative for COVID-19, but doctors at UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wis., were baffled. They still are.
“Everything was going downhill and they were telling me they didn’t know. It probably would have been easier if they had said, “Here’s what’s going on,” Stricker said in a June 29 phone interview with the Beacon Journal. you just hope and pray that nothing comes back with a bad report. They took a biopsy of my liver. There was a whole bunch of stuff.
“Looking in the mirror and seeing what I looked like wasn’t very comforting, just knowing what my brother went through.”
Stricker spent six months away from golf. He lost 25 to 30 kilograms. He joked to Wisconsin.Golf’s Gary D’Amato in January that he looks like an 85-year-old with sagging skin.
“It almost seems like a cliché, life is short, but I think it really hits home … to think we were so close to losing him,” Stricker’s wife, Nikki, told the Beacon Journal, also thinking of their two daughters, Bobbie and Izzy.
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 return to Akron, Ohio, to defend his title in the $3 million Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, which opens Thursday at Firestone Country Club, just as amazed as everyone else by his performance in 2022.
“I have that belief that I’m going to go out there and play well, even if I don’t feel 100 percent,” Stricker said. “I feel like all players on the Champions Tour have some kind of illness or problem. It’s getting better, no doubt. It’s a process. I lost it for a short period of time, but I think it’s going to take longer to get it back to where I feel like I was before it happened.”
The way Stricker began to regain his strength had its lighthearted moments.
He had no appetite and strength to eat, but he had no saliva either. He believes it is due to medications that include a beta-blocker and a blood thinner, because after he started weaning them off, his dry mouth improved.
“I might try to have a smoothie or something, but nothing even tasted good,” Stricker said. “(Nikki) tried to bring me Culver’s shakes or shakes from the hospital and I would drink some. Who doesn’t like a Culver’s shake, right? I had no appetite or energy to eat. Even when I got home, it was still hard for me to eat for another month and that’s why I lost so much weight.”
Thanks to one daughter’s trips to Dunkin’, Munchkins donut holes became his “fix.” He tried to eat one and drink it down with something. Then there were the Culver shakes.
“I took some fries and dipped them in the shakes so I could pour them out,” Stricker said. “It was all these little things.”
His old favorite soft drink, Sun Drop, provided another story.
“When my heart was out of rhythm, I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m going to drink half a Sun Drop,'” Stricker said. “Sugar and all that is probably not good for your heart, and I hadn’t had anything like that in a few months. Alcohol-free. Did you know that my heart is back in rhythm this afternoon after having a soda in the morning? I attributed it to Sun Drop. Nikki and the kids roll their eyes, “No way.”
“Then I go back to that Sun Drop kick for a while. Now I’ve given up on him again. That’s my only vice. I like to drink coke. I’ve given up Sun Drop, now I drink a coke a day I think I need to get off that too.”
During the crisis, Stricker never lost faith that he would recover.
“It was an ordeal for him in the hospital at night being there by himself, just mentally, he said that, it was the hardest thing he’s ever done,” Nikki said. “It was just kind of trusting what we were hearing and then just believing that whatever was going to happen, it was going to be okay.”
Stricker relied on the positive, upbeat attitude that has always characterized him.
“I felt like, ‘I’m going to get through this,'” he said. “The only good thing is when they took those blood samples and they came back and said, ‘No, we don’t see anything. No cancer. No other problems. We checked all these basic things and nothing. ‘ So I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s like checking your car. They checked everything and nothing came back.’ I’m like, “Okay, that’s good news.”
“Even though they were telling me, ‘We can’t find him,’ I took that as, ‘Okay, I dodged another bullet, really, from something they were looking for.'”
Nikki Stricker said her husband is “just kind of set up” to stay positive.
“He obviously had problems in 2005 and 2006, so this kind of comeback is not new for him mentally,” she said.
Stricker said the pressure of serving as Ryder Cup captain for the Americans’ 19-9 victory over the Europeans at Whistling Straits may have played a role.
“All that stress over the last couple of years, especially the last month, and how your body just takes a deep breath after it’s over and let’s go,” he said. “That all comes to mind, doesn’t it, probably? Who knows?”
But that’s not uppermost in his mind.
“Deep down, I just felt like I was having a reaction to this vaccine,” Stricker said. “You read about the vaccine and myocarditis or pericarditis. Maybe I had some virus that caused it and they can’t give it a name they said it could be…”
He eventually contracted COVID-19, forcing him to withdraw from the Senior PGA Championship on May 24. He said on a June 15 conference call that he felt it set him back.
When Stricker says he’s lucky to be alive, it’s no longer a cliché.
“Yes, even though I’ve worked on my health and tried to stay fit and active, I’ve always taken it for granted,” he said. “I feel armored. It showed how quickly things can really turn around and sometimes you have no control over them. So that was certainly a wake-up call.”
Nikki Stricker doesn’t look back for answers. She’s more focused on the future and what they’ve gained from Stricker’s rough six months. Steve is thrilled that daughter Bobbi took part in an Epson Tour event, the Island Resort Championship, in Michigan last month with Nikki in her bag, and may take part in a few more of these events. Izzi recently shot a 74 and was the low qualifier for an upcoming AJGA event in Wisconsin.
“The way I look at it, what’s important is what he’s learned from it, whether it’s for himself, what’s important to him,” Nikki said. “There was just a shift in him about what really mattered. It’s not that I felt like these things that we all as a family think are important aren’t, I think they’re just viewed a little differently.
“It gave us a different perspective. The effect it had on the girls, it’s not that they didn’t appreciate their father and didn’t love their father, you just look at him a little differently. If you have faith that things happen for a reason, it’s like “what good came out of that?” I think we continue to see that every day.”
Follow Marla Ridenour on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.