Major title would cap greatest season of Stricker's pro career
He’s won twice this year and is second to Tiger Woods in FedEx Cup points, money, scoring average and the PGA Tour’s all-around ranking.
In other words, among mere mortals the 42-year-old Stricker is at the moment the best golfer on earth, statistically speaking.
He goes into the 91st PGA Championship riding a tsunami of confidence built on eight top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts and, just as important, the inner peace that comes from owning his swing.
He’s hitting fairways at a 65.45 percent clip, nearly 20 percentage points higher than he managed six years ago, when his struggles with the driver precipitated a horrendous three-year slump.
He’s just a four-hour drive from his home in Madison, playing on turf and greens similar to those he grew up playing on. His family is here to support him, and he’ll have plenty of familiar faces in his gallery, including close friend Tony Bennett, the University of Virginia men’s basketball coach.
So can Stricker win this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club?
“You know, I feel like I’m ready,” he said Wednesday. “I feel like I’ve been ready for a couple of years. It’s just trying to get all the things to fall into place. Have a course that kind of fits your eye and fits your game. I don’t know if this one does or not.
“Hopefully, I’m going to play well. But there’s a lot of variables that go into it. First of all, you have to play well. Then you can’t really control anybody else, how they play.
“But, yeah, I’d like to think that I’m ready.”
Mike Small, a college teammate of Stricker’s at the University of Illinois, played two practice rounds with Stricker this week. Small won the 2009 PGA National Professional Championship to earn a spot in the field.
“Steve is so steady,” Small said. “Consistency right now is his middle name. His ball doesn’t have a lot of curve in it, and he’s so efficient around the greens. If he hits some fairways this week, which he will, which he’s been doing lately, he can be right in there.”
If there’s a factor working against Stricker, it’s the sheer length of Hazeltine National, at 7,674 yards the longest course in major championship history.
Stricker, ranked No. 6 in the world, is not a bomber. He is 115th on the PGA Tour in driving distance (285.8 yards).
“I think it’s a factor for me,” he said of the length. “I’ve got to do a lot of other things well. I played with Davis Love (Tuesday). and he’s hitting it 30 (yards) past me and coming into the greens with probably two or three clubs less than I am.
“That’s a huge advantage. So I’m going to have to be accurate and hit it in the fairway, and when I don’t I’m going to have to rely on my short game to keep plodding along. A course of this length, I’m going to have to do a lot of little things well to be able to compete.”
Small, however, said Stricker was long enough.
“I’ve played with him twice, 27 holes,” he said. “This course is not too long for Steve. He hits it far enough.”
Stricker tied for sixth at the Masters in April, his ninth career top-10 finish in a major. He tied for 23rd at the U.S. Open and was on the leaderboard early in the British Open before fading to a tie for 52nd.
Stricker has been in the hunt enough to know what to expect when his collar begins to tighten. He is in a great place emotionally. He’s a virtuoso with his wedge and putter (he leads the Tour in scrambling and is tied for fifth in putting average). His swing tempo almost never varies.
If he can drive the ball in play, manage his game and do the little things well, there’s no reason he can’t be in contention come Sunday.
After winning the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial earlier this year, Stricker said he felt “bigger and better” things were ahead.
Hazeltine is bigger. The Wanamaker Trophy is better.
Could this be the week?
PGA CHAMPIONSHIP AT A GLANCE
Site: Hazeltine National Golf Club, Chaska, Minn.
Length: 7,674 yards. Par: 36-36—72.
Defending champion: Padraig Harrington
Major champions at Hazeltine: Tony Jacklin (1970 U.S. Open), Payne Stewart (1991 U.S. Open), Rich Beem (2002 PGA Championship).
Key statistic: Hazeltine is the longest course in major championship history.
Tiger Tales: The PGA Championship is the only major where Tiger Woods has never missed the cut.
Noteworthy: The world ranking of the major champions this year were No. 69 (Angel Cabrera), No. 71 (Lucas Glover) and No. 33 (Stewart Cink). It’s the first time no one ranked inside the top 30 has won a major in one season.
Quoteworthy: “You’ve got to remember, there’s always going to be the first time to win a major.”—Padraig Harrington.
TV: Today and Friday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., TNT Sports; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., TNT Sports; 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., CBS Sports.