ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Steve Stricker signed for a 2-under 68 in the first round of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill on Thursday. That was good enough to put the semi-retired 46-year-old on the first page of the leaderboard, but almost no one paid him any mind. Only one reporter met him outside the scoring area, and that reporter was interested only in whether the soft-spoken putting whisperer Stricker has begun to help short-game wizard Luke Donald on the greens. (The Golf Channel showed them together on the practice green late Wednesday.)
"No, that's not true," Stricker told Golf.com. "He came over last night and he was pimpin' me. He picked up my putter and said, 'Come on, I need a lesson! Come on!' I go, 'You don't need a lesson.' We swapped putters for a little bit, but there was no lesson. He doesn't need a lesson. He makes enough putts."
Tiger Woods, Stricker's most famous of his two putting students — the other is the marginally less recognized Josh Teater — took a respectable 27 putts but double-bogeyed the par-4 ninth hole, his last, for a 1-over 71 on Thursday.
For the time being, Stricker said, he has no designs on becoming a full-time putting coach in the way that, say, Stan Utley has become a short-game coach. But when he deigns to show up on Tour these days the humble Wisconsinite is still asked constantly for lessons. Some of the requests, like Donald's, seem to be in jest, but others are more serious and Stricker is happy to at least talk about putting, as he did with Phil Mickelson at the 2011 Presidents Cup. "He was just picking my brain," Stricker said. "A lot of guys ask questions."
Stricker himself continues to get the ball in the hole with the best of them despite his severely reduced schedule in 2013. The 12-time PGA Tour winner has made more than $2.4 million in just nine tournaments in '13, racking up second-place finishes at the Hyundai TOC and the WGC-Cadillac (behind only winner Woods), plus a tie for eighth at the U.S. Open and a tie for 20th at the Masters.
Putting is everything in golf. After muddling through a season in which he had made almost nothing on the greens, Robert Garrigus, who played two groups in front of Stricker on Thursday, used a 33 ½-inch Ping Why Worry putter that his coach gave him last weekend to take just 25 putts and shoot 67. Mickelson credited his improved stroke on the greens in winning the British Open last month. Woods is forever striving to get back to the same level of alacrity on the greens that saw him win four straight majors, one of them by 15 shots, at the turn of the century.
"Tiger is so talented you could tell him to putt with a square rock and a broom handle and he's going to get it in the hole," Stricker said. "He's a different cat. He can take anything you say and apply it right away."
The most freighted putting lesson of the year came just before the start of the Cadillac in early March, with Stricker helping Woods rediscover his stroke on the practice green at Doral. The result: Woods took only 100 putts, the fewest in his career over a 72-hole tournament, in winning the Cadillac by two strokes.
Second place: Steve Stricker.
"It's flattering," Stricker said. "People come to me and ask me questions, and I don't mind helping the guys. It seems like that's what golfers have done generation to generation, they help one another out, and I've asked other players questions about iron shots or wedge play or how to play out of a specific type of lie in a specific type of grass. We're all looking for that little edge, you know?"
For Woods, Doral was victory number two in what so far has been a five-win season. In his most recent triumph, at the Bridgestone, he flirted with a 59 in the second round (he shot 61) and eventually won by seven strokes.
"I watched him on TV, when I was done playing," said Stricker, who placed 13th at Firestone. "He said he putted really good the first couple of days, and then he didn't putt that good over the weekend, so that's what he was asking me when I played with him [at Oak Hill] on Monday, just a couple of setup questions. We've played so much golf together over the years, and I've always watched his putting to great detail, and he trusts me in what I say, I guess.
"He doesn't require a whole lot of babysitting," Stricker added. "We believe in a lot of the same things, how the putter rotates and that type of stuff, so it's fun to talk about that kind of stuff, and it's fun that the best player in the world actually feels like I help him, that he trusts what I have to say — or so he makes me think!"
Stricker laughed and walked into the afternoon with his 68, perhaps to watch Woods on TV or consider more requests for putting tutorials. The best player in the world came in 50 minutes later, and if he bothered to scroll down the scores at this 95th PGA, he probably noticed that his putting coach beat him by three strokes.