Steve Stricker has underdog role locked up at PGA Championship

Steve Stricker
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Steve Stricker hits his tee shot on the 18th hole Friday at the PGA Championship in Louisville, Ky.

LOUISVILLE -- Nobody is having a bigger week at the 96th PGA Championship than Steve Stricker.

On Monday, he pulled into the Valhalla Golf Club lot and parked his courtesy car in a spot reserved for a former PGA Championship winner -- Tiger Woods. “I knew he wasn’t coming on Monday,” Stricker explained.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin native played a practice round with Woods, which is rarefied air to begin with. He also didn’t tip off Tiger that he’d been named by Tom Watson to be an assistant Ryder Cup captain. When Woods found out, he thought Stricker had pulled a pretty good joke on him.

“I found out from Steiny [agent Mark Steinberg],” Woods said later, smiling. “I guess he was focused on his game.”

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On Thursday, Stricker quietly shot a solid two-under-par 69 while all the TV cameras and gallery focused on Tiger’s comeback.

On Friday, he birdied four of his first seven holes, briefly pulling into a tie for second, and eventually finished off a 68 for a five-under total that left him tied for fifth before the afternoon wave had finished, four shots off Rory McIlroy’s lead.

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Oh, and did I mention that Stricker is playing with a torn labrum in his hip? He’s not sure how that happened or what he’s going to do about it, but if he were to somehow play his way onto the Ryder Cup team by winning at Valhalla, a minor miracle considering the way he’s played this year and the fact that he’s 47 and has never won a major, you can bet he’ll postpone any serious medical treatment until after the Sept. 26–28 matches.

Maybe Mr. McIlroy is going to run away with this PGA, but until that happens, Stricker has the Cinderella story and underdog role locked up.

Now he’s in contention at another major championship. He’s had chances, most recently at last year’s U.S. Open at Merion, but he’s never closed one out.

Pressure? Nah. Not anymore. Let’s face it. Once you’re chosen to be an assistant Ryder Cup captain, that’s tantamount to acknowledging your days of serious competition are over.

Then again, with potential members of the U.S. squad “dropping like flies,” as captain Tom Watson put it, a good weekend by Stricker might cast a whole different light on the situation. Tiger is hobbled. Matt Kuchar withdrew from the PGA before the start of play because of back spasms, and Dustin Johnson is on a personal leave. Jason Dufner walked off the course on Thursday with a neck issue. At this rate, the Americans might need to resort to a couple of playing captains.

The problem is that whole less-is-more formula that served Stricker so well in 2013 morphed into less-is-less this year. He has played in only 10 tournaments, is on the bubble to even qualify for the first week of the FedEx Cup playoffs and hasn’t posted enough rounds to be ranked in the PGA Tour’s statistical categories.

He managed only one top 10, and how’s this for telling? He didn’t even crack the top 10 at his beloved John Deere Classic, which he once won three times in a row and has been like an annuity for him. All right, so he finished 11th. That’s like finishing 35th for anyone else. Still, the roast corn is great, and the tractors are fun.

So he hasn’t played as well as he has in the past. At 47, that always begs the question of whether he’s just a little rusty or if this is the best he can do.

“Sure, I would like to play [in the Ryder Cup] but I haven’t played that much or that well,” Stricker said after his Friday round. “I’d have to do something pretty special, like win or finish second this week. It hasn’t really crossed my mind. I know my spot.”

His spot is serving as liaison between the other older vice captains and the younger players, since he’s still on Tour and knows them. Everyone loves Steve.

“I’m sure it’s going to sting when I get over to Scotland and I’m watching those guys and wishing I was playing,” he said. “I’m just going to cherish the experience. I just want to help the guys out in any way I can.”

So he’s not playing for the Ryder Cup. If he were serious about making the team, he wouldn’t have skipped the British Open for a second straight year, what with its double points.

With McIlroy four shots ahead of him at Valhalla, Stricker might not be playing for the Wanamaker Trophy either. The same could be said of the rest of the field.

“I’m not far off the lead, but we all know who’s leading,” Stricker said. “He’s driving it as good as anybody I’ve ever seen in the game. You drive it between 320 and 340 in play, that’s pretty tough to compete against.”

So Stricker does what he does best: Keep the drives in play, hit some good irons, get up and down when you have to and drain some big putts. He rolled in a 20-footer on the 10th hole, his first of the day. He hit it close on the par-3 14th for a second birdie, made a 12-footer at the 15th and poured in a 30-footer at the 17th. He made eight pars and a bogey on the second nine.

“I was feeling confident,” he said. “I hit it really nicely the first nine and putted well, but it didn’t go as well on the second nine. That’s kind of been my M.O. for the last few months. The conditions were tough. It’s sloppy and wet, there’s a lot of water out there and the ball was coming off the clubface a little funny sometimes. The greens are starting to get chopped up. I’m just happy to be done and have no more delays.”

Saying there’s no pressure is a good way to diffuse the pressure that you’re trying to ignore. The PGA Championship (and an elusive major title). The Ryder Cup. The FedEx Cup. Stricker’s last win came at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January 2012. He knows his time is winding down.

“I’m just trying to have a good tournament and finish this year off positively,” he said.

And if Tiger Woods misses the cut and is gone from Valhalla for the weekend?

Let’s not think about it. Steve likes to take his parking spaces one day at a time.

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