Stricker hopes to be Major factor at Pinehurst

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

With the U.S. Open returning to Pinehurst No. 2 this week, the story of Payne Stewart's dramatic victory in 1999 is getting plenty of attention.

Stewart sank an 18-foot putt for a one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson. Major champions Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh tied for third.

Steve Stricker finished fifth that week, a few shots off the pace, but the Edgerton, Wisconsin native never gets mentioned when talking about that week.

Of the five, only Mickelson and Stricker are here this week. Stewart died in a plane crash just four months after his win, Woods is out with a back injury and Singh did not qualify.

Stricker didn't make it back to Pinehurst for the 2005 U.S. Open, but he carries some good memories from 1999 with him this week. The golf architect team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw reworked Pinehurst No. 2 in 2010, so Stricker and the rest of the field will be starting from scratch in a sense.

“I played here in '99 and it's vastly different,” Stricker said after playing nine holes Monday. “The greens are obviously the same for the most part, but it's a totally different look off the tee. Fairways are probably the same width, but there's a hazard on the edge with the sand and grasses, so there's a lot of awkward tee balls that you've got to be comfortable with come Thursday.”

Because of the emphasis on the short game this week, Stricker is expected to be among the contenders.

“I wish I had about 30 extra yards, but hopefully I'll keep it in play,” he said. “That's the strength of my game, keeping it in play, and chipping and putting, and you're going to have to do that this week to play well.”

At 7,562 yards and with four par-4s over 500 yards long, Stricker knows course management will be a key for him.

“There's some real challenging holes that you're going to have to play smart,” he said. “Some of the time you're not even going to try to hit it on the green, you're going to hit it to an area where you think you can get it up and down from.”

Now in the second year of his plan to scale back his golf and spend more time with his family, Stricker's game is coming around. He has made just six starts, but he tied for 13th at The Players Championship and tied for sixth at the Memorial in his last outing.

His family won't be here with him this week, he said, as his daughters finish up school. But that could change if he is in contention this weekend.

He's hoping he can finally break through in a major in his 62nd attempt. Last year at the U.S. Open at Merion, he was in contention going into the final round but quickly faded as he hit two shots out of bounds and carded a triple-bogey on the second hole. He shot 76 and finished tied for eighth.

“It'd be nice to steal one of these, but it's going to take a lot of good things on my part,” Stricker said. “Whoever wins will have to do a lot of good things, but that's why we're here, that's why we try, and hopefully you have a good week and do some good things and have a chance on the back nine come Sunday.”

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