MEDINAH, Ill. — Earlier this month, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III announced his four wildcard picks for the 2012 squad, but he really only had three decisions to make because Steve Stricker was always going to be on this team.
That's because the reserved Midwesterner with the rock-solid swing and smooth putting stroke fills the most difficult position on Team USA: Tiger Woods's partner. Stricker said it is especially important that he and Woods play well early at the Ryder Cup this week because the team takes its cues from Woods.
"That's big momentum when Tiger is gaining points and guys feed off that," Stricker said. "We need the whole team to play well, but it's good and important that Tiger gets off to a good start, I think, we can all generate some positive influence from that."
Woods has an uneven Ryder Cup record (13-14-2) and has only played on one winning Ryder Cup team, at Brookline in 1999. (Woods was injured when the Americans won in 2008 at Valhalla.) When Woods's record is examined closely, the problem is clear. Woods has dominated in Sunday singles (4-1-1), but team play is another story (9-13-1). In short, he hasn't played well with others. He admitted as much earlier in the week at Medinah.
"Certainly I am responsible for that," Woods said of Europe's recent success in Ryder Cups, "because I didn't earn the points that I was put out there for."
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That's where Stricker comes in. He first played with Woods at the 2009 Presidents Cup — where the Americans compete against the rest of the world, Ryder Cup-style — and the Stricker-Woods combo went 4-0. The golfing world took notice. Had Woods finally found a partner? The answer came at the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales. The Americans lost the event by a single point, but Woods and Stricker were stellar with a 2-1 record together. It was official: Woods, Team USA's Maverick, had found his Goose.
After playing a practice round at Medinah with Woods, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar on Wednesday, Stricker said that he believes Tiger has been a victim of his own success at the Ryder Cup.
"Every time Tiger goes out there, guys are gunning for him and they want to beat him," Stricker said. "He's kind of a marked man every time he tees it up in one of these events."
However, Sticker added that he didn't know why players have struggled to play with Woods in the past. He and Woods play well together because their games complement each other, he said.
"Our games are totally different," Sticker said. "He bombs it, I'm more of a control player. But I think our ability to scramble, to get it up-and-down, to make some putts here and there, I think is our one connection."
He and Woods connect on a personal level, as well.
"We get along very well and we enjoy each other's company," Stricker said. "We hang out in the team room a little bit and we talk a lot, so it's a comfortable pairing for both of us. I think that's why it's been good."
Woods has had success at this course in the past — he won the PGA Championship here in 1999 and 2006 — but Stricker said that while Woods's confidence is growing with three wins this season, he's still not at the level of his glory days.
"When we compare it to the Tiger of old, I don't think he's quite there yet," Stricker said. "And he'll probably be one of the first guys to tell you that because what he did back in the early 2000s when he was really dominating the game is something we may never see again from anybody. So it's hard to compare him to those years.
"But I definitely think he's gaining confidence, moving in the right direction," Stricker said. "I've talked to him a bunch in the last month or so leading up to this, and he feels good about where he's going and what he's doing."