Steve Stricker shot a six-over 41 on his second nine.
Simon Bruty/SI
Friday, June 13, 2008

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A sizzling start briefly put Steve Stricker atop the U.S. Open leaderboard, not on top of the world.

The man who battled Tiger Woods down to the wire at the 2007 FedEx Cup playoffs has been fighting burnout over the last two months. He's been unable to keep his mental focus long enough to break out of his slump and enjoy the game.

"I've hit a wall," said Stricker, who's been losing his concentration from one hole to the next, turning good starts into foul moods and leaving him watching on the weekend in his last four tournaments, beginning with his bafflingly poor performance at the Masters.

So when he made the turn Thursday at 4-under, thanks to four birdies in his first seven holes, Stricker knew he wasn't really going to conquer this course or his weariness, not on this day.

Trouble, as has been the case for so long, was waiting just around the corner.

A double bogey on the next hole, the par-4 No. 1, was the kindling for a plus-6 flameout on his second nine that left Stricker at 2-over, still a respectable score but a big letdown after such a spectacular start.

"I'm alive," Stricker said afterward. "For a while there I was thinking about jumping in the canyon."

The double bogey, he said, didn't bother him as much as his inability to recover quickly, a trait that helped him win almost $8 million over the last 2 1/2 years and the 2006 and '07 comeback player of the year honors after he famously rebounded from a four-year slump that threatened to end his career.

"It was a good start and then a bad backside," Stricker said. "And you're going to do that at No. 1. You're going to make a double, you're going to catch a lie in the rough that you can't get out of. That one didn't bother me. It was the next two holes that bothered me the most."

He pulled his 3-wood left on the par-4 No. 2, where his three-footer lipped out.

Then he misjudged the wind and hit a poor 9-iron on No.3, the 195-yard, par-3 with the pin tucked in the left corner. The ball rolled down a steep hill, leaving Stricker with an almost straight-up chip shot back onto the green.

The first one didn't quite make it and trickled back down to his spikes.

A second wedge shot just barely crawled over the lip, slowing spinning within six feet of the cup.

"I was very lucky to make it in four," Stricker said. "I kind of miscalculated the wind. It was more out of the right than what I had thought.

"It's been the tale of really the last four tournaments. I'm there. I show some signs of good play and then I disappear - my thinking, I don't know. I can't put a finger on it, but I disappear for a while mentally and then I fight to get it back," Stricker said.

"I've lost some confidence a little bit over the last couple of months."

Fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Kelly said he's not worried about his friend and neighbor the way he was several years ago when Stricker was fighting his demons as his world ranking dipped to 337th.

Kelly said Stricker's game is closer than he thinks and he just needs to clear his head.

Which is exactly what Stricker is going to do.

"I've just kind of got tired and I'm going to step away a little bit to do what I need to do and I'll make another run at it," said Stricker, who is trying to make his 11th cut in 13 Opens.

He'll start by tagging along with his wife, Nicki, at the Madison City women's tournament next week, although he emphasizes he'll be carting his way around the course, not caddying.

"It's a lot more fun than beating yourself up out there," he said, nodding toward the city-owned Torrey Pines course along the Pacific bluffs.

He's also planning a three-day fishing trip, hoping to find the revelations on the lake that have eluded him on the links.

"If you did this every day, you've got to do something different, don't you?"

Since finding his game in 2006, Stricker has gone full-bore, catching his breath only at the end of the season.

After dueling with Woods in the FedEx Cup last September, he started this year by losing a playoff at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, followed by three more top-10 finishes that had him ranked fourth in the world.

Now, he's going to have to rejuvenate his game and rediscover his passion for the sport to have a shot at making his first U.S. Ryder Cup team, which seemed like such a sure thing not so long ago.

"I've come close maybe four other times throughout my career where I've had an opportunity to make this team," he said. "And I'd hate to kind of let another one slip away."

But first things first.

"First of all, play well here. That's what I keep telling myself," he said. "I've got this to worry about, play well here."

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