MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — Steve Stricker was at the Presidents Cup last fall when he learned he had risen to No. 3 in the world ranking. Then came a message from his wife, which would not easily be mistaken for a call of congratulations.
“Overrated,” she said.
Stricker still laughs about that. And yes, he’s still part of the Big Three.
As far as he fell off the world ranking charts, he’s not someone who is looking for respect. And it’s not like he doesn’t know what it’s like to get little recognition for a major achievement.
The Accenture Match Play Championship begins Wednesday, and Stricker is one of five past champions at Dove Mountain.
You don’t remember?
He was among two dozen players who only got into the 64-man field because it was held in Australia to start the 2001 season, and the stars – Americans and Europeans alike – didn’t want to travel halfway around the world a few days after Christmas.
Stricker was No. 90 in the world ranking and got the No. 55 seed. It’s not surprising that he didn’t get much credit for winning against many perceived to be a watered-down field. Greg Kraft was the No. 64 seed that year, at No. 104 in the world ranking.
What gets forgotten is whom Stricker defeated.
He knocked off Padraig Harrington in the first round, then Scott Verplank in the second. Stricker holed two bunker shots and demoralized Justin Leonard in the third round, then beat Nick O’Hern in 20 holes to reach the semifinals.
The final two victims were Toru Taniguchi and Pierre Fulke.
“I shouldn’t say I catch a lot of flak for winning that event,” Stricker said. “But it’s not looked at, I don’t think, as favorably as winning with Tiger in the event, or Ernie there – well, Ernie was there.”
Els lost in the semifinals that year to Fulke.
“I keep telling myself I beat a lot of good players to win that event,” Stricker said.
And that’s what he has to do on The Gallery Course at Dove Mountain, perched in the high desert above Tucson. It is a course that favors power hitters and discriminates against the paying customers, who can only watch one hole at a time from one side of the fairway on terrain that slopes away from the action. Call this the anti-stadium course.
First up for Stricker is Daniel Chopra. Stricker doesn’t need to hear the tired old line that “anyone can beat anyone over 18 holes.” It was only seven weeks ago that Chopra beat him in a four-hole playoff at the Mercedes-Benz Championship.
Tiger Woods is the No. 1 seed, and while the top seed has lost in the first round only one time, Woods is facing big-hitting J.B. Holmes, who took out Phil Mickelson in a playoff to win the FBR Open up the road in Scottsdale a few weeks ago.
Mickelson plays Pat Perez, the eternal pessimist.
Els is the No. 4 seed and plays Jonathan Byrd, who won the John Deere Classic last year, and that’s one more PGA Tour victory than Els has over the last three years.
Nothing comes easily, and no one needs a reminder about the vagaries of match play more than Els.
He is a seven-time champion of the World Match Play Championship in England, in which matches are contested over 36 holes each day. At this World Golf Championship, Els has never advanced to the third round in America.
Not many were surprised when he said he would not be coming this year. The shock was when he changed his mind.
Els was supposed to be on holiday this week in South Africa with his family. But he figured he had taken a long break in the winter, so he was playing on Dove Mountain as his kids toured the Grand Canyon.
If nothing else, Els’ expectations are probably tempered.
“My record is not great in this tournament, as we all know,” Els said. “If I have a better game and I get a bit lucky, you win a couple of matches and you can find yourself in the quarterfinals or semifinals. I’m really aiming at that. And basically, that’s why I’m here.”
Woods is the only No. 1 seed to lose in the first round, to Peter O’Malley in 2002. He didn’t even know who was in his bracket, much less who he would play in the second round if he were to beat Holmes.
The circumstances are slightly familiar for Woods at the Match Play.
A year ago, he came to Dove Mountain in search of his eighth straight PGA Tour victory. He has another winning streak this year that is slightly complicated, but no less impressive.
Since finishing second on Sept. 3 at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Woods won the last two playoff events in the FedEx Cup and opened his ’08 season on the PGA Tour by winning the Buick Invitational by eight shots. He also won his unofficial Target World Challenge in California against a 16-man field by seven shots. On the European Tour, he rallied from four shots down to win the Dubai Desert Classic.
Unofficially, that’s five straight wins spread over five months.
Officially, he has to win six straight matches over five days, with his first objective to get past Holmes.
“This is always going to be probably a little more difficult to win because you could be playing well and still go home,” Woods said. “It’s not about the marathon. It’s not about the long race of four rounds to position yourself for winning a golf tournament. It’s a sprint. You’ve got to get it done in 18 holes. If you get two or three behind in this format with only 18 holes, generally the guys lose.
“But in stroke play, if you get off to a slow start, you can still win a golf tournament.”