Stricker is in the hunt in Houston
That is why just days before the Masters, he is playing this week in the Houston Open instead of practicing at Augusta.
Stricker shot a 67 in Thursday’s opening round and is four shots behind leader Jimmy Walker.
Stricker, ranked No. 10 in the world, said he’s devoted to playing in Houston, no matter where it falls on the schedule, to return a favor from tournament director Steve Timms.
Stricker finished 162nd on the money list in 2005, and needed a sponsor’s exemption from Timms to play in the Houston event the following year. He shot 65 in the third round and a 66 in the final round to finish third, the first of seven top-10s in 2006, and was later named the tour’s comeback player of the year.
“This tournament means a lot to me,” Stricker said. “The confidence level and my game have come a long way since ’06, but this was a stepping stone. It gave me a lot of confidence, and I ran with it and I’ve been playing well ever since.”
Stricker did miss the event last year because it coincided with his daughter’s spring break.
“I enjoy the course, I enjoy the Houston Golf Association, I enjoy the people here,” he said.
“We had perfect conditions all day,” he said. “The course is in the best shape I’ve ever seen it. You kind of felt like you had to put up a good 3-, 4-, 5-under round and I was able to do that. There’s some scoring holes out here when the wind doesn’t blow, and it didn’t blow hardly at all today.”
Stricker made his move with four consecutive birdies at Nos. 12-15.
“When you have days like that on the PGA Tour, guys are going to take advantage of it with low scores,” he said. “You feel like you’ve got to do the same to keep up with everybody.”
(Stricker tees off at 12:40 p.m. today. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. on the Golf Channel, Janesville cable channel 38).
Walker tied the course record with a 9-under 63 to take a two-shot lead over Josh Teater and Nick O’Hern after the first round.
Walker matched the record set by Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott in the first round of the 2008 tournament. Wagner went on to win that year.
Chris Kirk was three back after a 66, and Stricker, John Rollins, Nathan Green and Brendan Steele shot 67s and were four behind.
Most of the big-name players were in the hunt, as they fine-tune their games for next week’s Masters.
-- Brittany Lincicome and Stacy Lewis overcame the stifling desert heat for 6-under 66s Thursday, taking the first-round lead at the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Sandra Gal and Mika Miyazato were one shot back at the LPGA Tour’s first major of the year.
Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington were in the large pack of players at 4 under, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen were at 2 under and former Masters champions Angel Cabrera and Fred Couples were 1 under.
Calm conditions yielded low scores all day at the Tournament Course at Redstone. A total of 32 players broke 70 and 87 players shot even-par (72) or better.
Walker needed only 23 putts, the fewest of any player in the first round.
“I’m not going to say like, ‘Oh, every time I hit the green, this one is going in,’” Walker said. “I just kept stroking it. I felt like I kind of got back to feeling that stroke that I was using earlier in the year, when I was putting so good and playing so good.”
Walker changed putters at the start of the season, and he’s made six cuts in eight starts and already has three top-10 finishes this year. His round Thursday matched the lowest of his career.
“When you putt well,” he said, “it cures a lot of ills, for sure.”
Like Walker, Teater and Rollins also need victories to earn invitations to Augusta next week. And as long as they’re in town, they’re both hoping to see their favorite college basketball teams take home a trophy, too.
Teater is a die-hard Kentucky fan and Rollins is the only VCU graduate on the PGA Tour. Both have tickets to Saturday’s Final Four games—Butler-VCU and Connecticut-Kentucky—at Reliant Stadium, about 25 miles from the course.
And both are hoping they have a tough decision to make on Monday—fly to Augusta to get ready for the Masters or stay in Houston an extra day to see their team play for a national championship.
“I don’t want to cross a bridge that I haven’t gotten to,” Teater said. “If it comes to that, I’ll probably stay for the game. But Monday night, it would be nice to be there, celebrating with everybody else.”
Teater wore a blue shirt and a white belt with a “UK” logo on his belt buckle during his round. He went to Morehead State in Kentucky, but grew up rooting for the Wildcats.
“I’ve been a fan since I could walk and talk,” Teater said. “It goes back as far as I go back.”
Rollins’ connection to VCU is more personal. The Richmond native is a longtime friend of Athletic Director Norwood Teague and has built a friendship with Rams coach Shaka Smart, who’s played in Rollins’ charity golf event the past two years.
Rollins has missed three cuts in his last five starts, and says he’s drawing inspiration from VCU’s surprising run.
“This could be exactly what I needed for my golf game,” Rollins said. “This could be something that I need to kind of get a little bit of a spark under me to get me going and just kind of maybe wake me up or whatever.”
Tournament organizers lured many top players by grooming the course to simulate conditions at Augusta—light rough, shaved mounds, fast greens and fairways mowed toward the tee.