Tee for Two

updated 06/17/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/17/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AFTER HIS FINAL STROKE—a gentle four-foot putt—on a rain-soaked green at the Kemper Open in Potomac, Md., last month, Steve Stricker had, at last, clinched the first victory in his three-year career on the PGA Tour. But while other golfers might have reacted with hugs and high fives, Stricker, 29, opted for a more unusual move: He planted a big wet one on his caddie's lips.

Luckily for the staid old PGA, Steve's caddie—one Nicki Stricker—is also his wife. Since heading to the altar in 1993, the pair, whose arrangement is one of the first in pro golf, have turned Steve's blossoming career into a team effort: While he blasts his 280-yard drives, she lugs his 30-pound golf bag, rakes sand traps and helps calculate yardage. "It's nice having her out there all the time," says Steve, ranked 13th on the 1996 PGA money list as he heads to this week's U.S. Open in Birmingham, Mich. "We have common goals and are achieving things together." For Nicki, 27, once an accomplished college golfer, her supporting role beats standing on the sidelines. "I could just watch him play, but I prefer being involved," she says. "I view it as a job, and I try to do a good job and be there for him."

Indeed, aside from her frequent daubing of sunblock on Steve's cheeks, the two are all business when he's playing. "They seem to be a terrific combination," says Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion. "He's played some great golf with her on the bag." That kind of teamwork, the couple says, stems from a solid relationship, on and off the fairway. "If we do fight," says Steve, "we don't stay mad at each other for more than 15 minutes." Adds Nicki: "We start laughing at each other after a while."

As a child in Edgerton, Wis, Steve was drawn to golf early. Every Sunday-he and his father, Bob, an electrician (his mother, Carolyn, is a bookkeeper), and his brother Scott (now 32 and a partner in their father's business) hit the community golf course. "I wanted to play pro as early as I can remember," he says. Team captain at Edgerton Senior High School, he was recruited in 1985 by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. When his long game faltered during his junior year, he called Dennis Tiziani, the golf coach who had unsuccessfully tried to recruit him at Illinois's Big Ten rival, the University of Wisconsin. "He had told me then, 'If you ever need help, don't be afraid to call,' " says Steve. "I did, and he was nice enough to work with me." The renewed contact paid off with more than lessons: Nicki is Tiziani's younger daughter (her mother, Bobbie, is a bookkeeper). "One day Dennis and I were sitting in a golf cart, and she was walking toward us," recalls Steve. "I nudged him and said, 'Who's that?' "

He and Nicki quickly became an item. By 1990, Steve had turned pro and Nicki, who had begun learning the game at age 5, was playing for her dad's team at Wisconsin. Eventually named the school's woman golfer of the '80s, she graduated in 1991 and thought about joining the family's long line of pro golfers. (A grandfather, uncle and aunt were pros; Dennis was on the PGA Tour from 1969 to 1971; and her brother Mario, 25, played on last year's Hooters Mini-Tour.) But "I realized Steve and I would go in different directions," she says, "and I didn't want that." Having occasionally caddied for Steve already, she decided to assist him full-time. "I didn't want to be following him around without a purpose," she says.

The arrangement was a success. A few months after their 1993 wedding, Steve earned one of 40 spots on the PGA Tour by finishing 18th at the qualifying school. Instead of ditching his caddie for a more seasoned club carrier—as is customary for PGA rookies—Steve kept Nicki on. "We figured we shouldn't change anything because things were going so well," he says. Skeptics abounded. "There was some doubt about whether what we were doing would work," he says. "You could tell we were being talked about."

No one's snickering now. Following the U.S. Open, Steve heads to the British Open in July, and next year, for the second time, he'll play at the Masters. Despite his nearly $1.32 million in career winnings (more than $550,000 this year), the couple remains frugal, commuting between condos in Tampa and Madison, Wis., and indulging only in equipment for Steve's deer-hunting trips and outings to the mall. Nicki doesn't even collect the standard caddie salary of $700 a week, plus 7 percent of gross earnings. Not that she's complaining. "I don't get paid," she says. Then she laughs: "I actually get 50 percent!"

JAMCE MIN
LORENZO BENET in La Quinta

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