AUGUSTA, Ga. – Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A Wisconsin Badger faces the last shot. It’s a tough one, maybe a 25-footer. There’s a lot riding on it. And this time… bingo, it goes in!
Steve Stricker probably would have traded his successful final shot on Thursday in the opening round of the Masters to his beloved Badgers basketball team for the missed buzzer shot that ended Wisconsin’s heartbreaking, one-point loss to Kentucky in last Saturday night’s Final Four thriller.
History has spoken, however. The Badgers hoopsters were eliminated from the NCAA tournament, but Stricker didn’t shoot himself out of the Masters in the opening round, which is what this tournament is all about.
All right, I may have slightly overstated the drama on Stricker’s last shot. Making any 25-foot putt on the slopes of Augusta National is a lot like finding a $20 bill in a rental-car glove compartment—it’s an unexpected gift.
Stricker’s stroke was important from a psychological standpoint, however. He needed it to save bogey on the uphill 18th, and he had to have it to save a round of even-par 72. Not great but not bad, especially on a day when the wind kept playing tricks with the players.
“You walk on eggshells around here,” Stricker said. “It’s a tough place. Every shot is on the edge. You’ve got to hit a lot of good shots, and if you don’t, it’s tough to recover.”
His finish was a little of both. He yanked his tee shot at the 18th dead left into the trees. “I was lucky to find it and advance it to the fairway,” he said.
Faced with a long approach for his third shot, he hit a utility club left of the green. “That wasn’t a good spot, either,” he said.
The ensuing wedge shot caught the collar and skipped harder than it should have, shooting his ball some 25 feet past the cup. Then Stricker, one of the best putters in the game over the past decade, poured in the putt for a good bogey.
Augusta National yielded birdies grudgingly on Thursday and didn’t allow anyone to go really low. The course played long after Monday’s heavy rains, and the shape-shifting gusts wreaked havoc with club selection. Then there were the pin positions.
Asked if they were tougher than usual for an opening round, Stricker joked, “They’re always tough.”
This figures to be a pivotal year and maybe a pivotal Masters for Stricker, who turned 47 in February. He is ranked 15th in the world and has piled up eight wins in the last four years. This is the second season of his semi-retirement plan, for which he cut back to 13 appearances last season. The reduced schedule didn’t affect his play in 2013. He had a win, seven other top 10s, earned $4.4 million and was seventh on the money list.
This year Stricker has played so little that his face has come close to popping up on the side of milk cartons—only nine rounds before the Masters, including a 24th last week at the Shell Houston Open. So far, less hasn’t been more, but Stricker is still knocking the rust off and adjusting to a new set of irons he put in play in Houston. He has since tinkered with the shafts as well.
As a rare Tour player who lives in the frozen north, he’s used to starting slowly. “You want to be prepared, but being from Wisconsin, our weather is just not that good,” said Stricker, who lives in Madison and has adopted the Badgers as his favorite team even though he is an Illinois alum. “I’m accustomed to it, I deal with it. I’m fresh.”
He birdied the par-5 2nd hole and added another with what he called his best shot of the day, an 8-iron out of the second cut at the 7th that stopped five feet from the hole. A birdie at the par-5 8th got him to two under, and he made another at the 10th.
By then, however, the wind had started to pick up. A poor drive into the right trees led to a bogey at the 11th, and a gust appeared to knock his approach into the front bunker at the 12th, where his ball rolled down the face to the back side of the bunker and a lie on a downslope. Another bogey. He didn’t birdie either par-5 on the back, but he salvaged the round with the closing bogey.
“I just didn’t play as well as I did earlier,” Stricker said. “I’ll take even par. That’s a good start in a major anytime. You’re not going to be too far off the pace. You have to get lucky and make a couple good saves out there. You’re going to be put in awkward positions, and it’s how you handle those, whether you get up and down or save bogey. Even though it was a bogey, that was definitely a nice way to finish.”
The forecast for the rest of the week is for more sunshine, warm air and breezy conditions. Augusta National figures to get tougher each day as it firms up. Stricker is in good position after one round, but will he get the chance to attempt a dramatic last shot on Sunday? We’ll have to wait for the weekend’s second half to find out.