No one is mentioning Steve Stricker as a contender — but they should

August 11, 2011

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Does this not sound like the favorite for this week’s PGA Championship? A golfer who is:

• Fourth on the PGA Tour money list;
• Fifth in the Official World Golf Rankings;
• Finished outside the top 20 only once in 12 stroke-play events this year and inside the top 12 eight times;
• Second in scoring average;
• Second in the scrambling statistic;
• First in the ubiquitous putting category known as “strokes gained;”
• A two-time winner already in 2011.

Yet no one is throwing Steve Stricker’s name around as the guy to beat this week at Atlanta Athletic Club. No one ever does. He’s the stealth superstar of American golf at the moment and he is the highest-ranked American player.

But he has never won a major championship, he doesn’t drive it 330 yards and he loves publicity as much as he loves parking tickets. He’s normal, he’s humble, he likes deer hunting, his idea of a major purchase is a fishing skiff or new bow, his favorite tournament is the John Deere Classic (now that the Greater Milwaukee Open is extinct) and he’s the biggest celebrity who ever grew up in little Edgerton, Wis., near Madison.

We will likely continue to underestimate Stricker even though he proves on a weekly basis that it’s not how far you hit it, but how many times you hit it and how you get it in the hole that matters. He excels at scoring, which is the name of the game. At least we give him enough credit to put him on the list of the best players who haven’t won a major, but he’s just not glam enough to ever be No. 1. Which doesn’t bother him in the least.

“It’s a nice distinction to have, I guess, that they think you’re good enough to win a major,” Stricker said Wednesday with a smile. “But still, you haven’t won a major. I try not to worry about any of that stuff, I really don’t.”

You’d probably be hard-pressed to convince him that the John Deere Classic isn’t a major — it is important to Midwesterners like him. He does have some experience in major championships. He was leading the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont when he made the turn Sunday, then dropped back on the final nine. He was in the final pairing at Carnoustie on Sunday that year, too, but quickly fell out of contention. He was in the mix in 1998 at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club and the ’98 PGA Championship at Sahalee. Lee Janzen’s ball fell out of a tree at Olympic Club, a huge break that spurred Janzen’s win. Vijay Singh hit a shot into a tree on a par 5 at Sahalee and the ball ricocheted out onto the green, another great break that left Stricker in the close-but-no-candy category. He finished tied for fifth at that Open — he’s done that twice — and was the runner-up to Singh at Sahalee.

His resume covers a lot of ground — except for majors. He won the JDC for a third-straight time this year, a few weeks after winning the Memorial Tournament. He’s won classic old events like the Western Open and Northern Trust (formerly Los Angeles) Open and now-defunct events like the Kemper Open.

Stricker is 44 and if he’s going to win a major in his career, it’s going to happen soon or not at all. The extreme length of the redesigned AAC makes you think this isn’t really his week, yet short, straight hitters have often won on courses that were supposed to be perfect for long hitters. Short hitters generally hit it straight (or they wouldn’t be on the tour) and are more accurate with long irons, fairway woods and hybrids because they have to be, they use them more often than long hitters. See David Toms’s win at the ’01 PGA here at AAC over smasher Phil Mickelson, for instance, or Justin Leonard over Davis Love at Winged Foot in the ’97 PGA.

“This is a tough track,” Stricker said. “I think it was a little softer back in 2001. The greens are definitely faster. It’s 250 yards longer than 2001 and it’s just difficult. It’s a tough track and I’m not totally comfortable with it yet.”

Nobody is very comfortable with the new-and-improved 15th hole. It’s been lengthened. You may recall it as the hole where Toms used a 5-wood to ace it in the third round of the ’01 PGA en route to victory. It’s now a man-eating 260-yard par 3 and it’s got controversy potential if conditions take a turn for the worst.

“I played 18 holes with Mike Small and he said it best today,” Stricker said. “He said, ‘It’s a dogleg par 3.’ That’s pretty good. You’re going to see that bunker get a workout there. The hole doesn’t need to be that long. Some of the greatest par 3s in the world are short. This is a par 3 that’s very demanding, over the top. But everybody’s got to play it so you’re going to have to suck it up and hit a good shot.”

Stricker, who has played a little less golf this year so he can spend quality time at home with his wife and two children, has been a picture of consistency the last few years. He’s trying to cut back on his schedule but that’s been difficult when he’s been playing the best golf of his life, and now he’s entering the Summer Crunch Zone, when the top players run a gantlet of World Golf Championships, major championships and FedEx Cup playoff events. It began last week with the Bridgestone Invitational, followed by this week’s PGA. After a week off — well, the tour goes to Greensboro, technically — then comes four FedEx events in a five-week span. Stricker said he’ll play all the events he’s qualified for, but he’s not thrilled that the Presidents Cup matches, to be played in Australia in the fall, cut into his precious hunting season.

“I haven’t actually cut back all that much,” Stricker said. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years, counting mini-tours, and with kids at home, it’s just time to stay home. You know what I mean. Sometimes, it’s just time to stay home. I think that’s why I do play good when I come out because I’m fresh. I want to make sure I’m excited to go to each event. I feel like I can still play well if I’m excited to be there.”

He’s excited to be at this PGA. He’ll be even more excited if, come Sunday afternoon, he’s got a chance to win.