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HAVEN — As Steve Stricker held the Ryder Cup trophy outside the clubhouse at Whistling Straits Golf Course on Sunday evening, he was caught somewhere between states of elation and exhaustion.

By that point, his United States captainship officially over, the Madison resident was probably closer to the latter than the former.

“I’m drained,” he said.

It hadn’t been a particularly stressful three days for Stricker, whose American team had its foot on the gas pedal from start to finish. The result, a 19-9 rout, was the largest margin of victory by either side since this became a U.S. vs. Europe event in 1979.

But it had been a demanding experience from the time Stricker was named captain in Feb. 2019 until the moment his team hit the links here Friday morning.

“He was very stressed,” Bobbi Stricker said of her father, “and I’ve never seen him like that before.”

The Americans somehow arrived at this venue along Lake Michigan as both a heavy favorite on paper and also an underdog depending on how much value is placed on its recent record in the Ryder Cup.

Europe had won three of the previous four events, and seven of nine. The pressure was on the Americans to flip that script.

The heat was on Stricker to deliver because the 12-man team he’d assembled had an average Official World Golf Ranking of 8.9, including nine of the top 11 players on that list. Fair or not, Stricker was going to get blamed if that loaded roster fell short.

Stricker essentially went chalk when making his captain picks, though he did choose Scottie Scheffler over Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed, both of whom were higher in the world rankings.

All Scheffler did was earn three points in four matches, including a win over World No. 1 Jon Rahm on Sunday. The U.S. had built an 11-5 lead through two days but, well, big leads had disappeared previously for this team. Stricker was a captain’s pick himself back in 2012 when the Americans collapsed after taking a 10-6 cushion heading into the final day at Medinah Country Club near Chicago.

The idea of something like that happening again seemed unlikely, but Xander Schauffele pushed a short putt to the right of the No. 1 hole and never led in a 3 and 2 loss to Rory McIlroy. No problem: Two groups later, Scheffler birdied the first hole to take a lead on Rahm and coasted to a 4 and 3 victory.

“I think we had a really nice team this week, but we were outplayed right from the get-go, 3-1 in that first session and they didn’t let up for one second,” Europe veteran Ian Poulter said. “They never seemed to open the door at any point (from) Friday afternoon to let us back in, and it was tough.”

It wasn’t just that Stricker made all the right moves when it came to captain’s picks, the pairings over the first two days and his lineup order on Sunday. His biggest accomplishment may have been the camaraderie he helped cultivate within a group of players who play as individuals the remaining 51 weeks of the year.

Much was made about the Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau feud but both apparently respected Stricker enough to put those differences aside for the sake of the team. They actually hugged a couple times Sunday, including once at the end of a news conference that got a little silly at times because some of the players already were in full, ahem, celebration mode.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Captain Strick and everybody putting their hearts out,” said DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion, “and making it the coolest experience I’ve ever had in my golf career.”

Stricker, one of the good guys in golf, has long been admired by people in the game and that appreciation was on display multiple times Sunday.

As both teams were waiting for the final groups to finish up, Poulter made a point to pull aside Stricker on the 18th green and congratulate him.

“Steve’s a lovely guy,” Poulter said. “I’ve played enough of these now to have only lost one before this one and he’s been on the receiving end of (some of) that.

“Steve has worked hard in the game of golf. What a nice thing to hold the trophy. I’d rather (Europe captain Padraig Harrington) had held it, but if there was a U.S. captain that you would have said it’s nice to see him with the trophy, Steve’s one of those guys.”

Later, the Americans were lined up in two rows during their the post-event news conference. Stricker was in the middle of the back row and every time the captain answered a question, Dustin Johnson turned from his spot on the far right of the front row to listen and maintain eye contact.

“Let’s be honest, Captain Strick did an unbelievable job of putting us all in the best position we could be in to win our matches,” said Johnson, who became only the fifth player in Ryder Cup history to go 5-0-0. “He was amazing, and I can’t thank him enough.”

Stricker did a fantastic job of leaving no stone unturned, assembling a team of veteran vice-captains that studied the players and dug into the history of this event so they could learn from past mistakes. When it came time to actually play golf, Stricker avoided rah-rah speeches and motivational videos; he got out of the players’ way and let them do what they do best.

“This is a new era right here,” Stricker said. “These guys are young, they want it, they’re motivated, they came here determined to win. I could see it in their eyes.”

What could be seen in Stricker’s eyes after this victory were tears. There were so many special moments while leading a team in his home state, including a moment of satisfaction as he held hands with wife, Nicki, as they made their way up the 18th fairway once the win had been clinched. Behind the green, he caught up with daughters Bobbi and Izzy; they hugged, told him they were proud of him, and the tears rolled some more.

At the trophy ceremony, Stricker saluted the crowd and made a “W” sign with his hands. He told them what this achievement meant to him.

“I’ve never won a major,” he said, “but this is my major right here.”

That drew more cheers from a gallery delighted for one of Wisconsin’s favorite sons. An hour later, the fatigue had set in but Stricker was pushing through it.

He looked over a quiet golf course and tried to take it all in.

“Can it get better than this?” he said, not waiting for a response because he already knew the answer.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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