PALM HARBOR, Fla. – A golf magazine asked Steve Stricker to take part in its survey on the best putters, and when he had finished his list, the world’s No. 2 player was asked if he would include himself.
That would seem like a no-brainer.
Looking at a small group of reporters listening to him, he started to laugh and weakly said, “I’m all right.”
It was a moment like this that illustrates why Stricker is unlikely to return to the deep slump that derailed his career. He has played golf better than anyone except for Tiger Woods over the last two years and refuses to take any satisfaction.
Stricker learns as much from failure as success, and memories remain fresh from the Transitions Championship, which starts Thursday on the tough Copperhead Course at Innisbrook.
Stricker rallied from a four-shot deficit in the final round and was tied for the lead, but he couldn’t finish it off. He flew the green from a bunker on the 17th and missed the 18th green from the middle of the fairway, closing with two bogeys to tie for fourth.
It was the third time Stricker had at least a share of the lead on the back nine and failed to win.
“It was disappointing bogeying the last couple of holes, but you know, I learned a lot from it,” Stricker said. “I took a lot away from it, and I think it helped me the rest of the year. … I think you learn just as much from disappointments as you do from positive things that have happened. It kept me motivated and gave me confidence.”
It paid off down the road, for sure.
Stricker won at Colonial, the John Deere Classic and the Deutsche Bank Championship during the FedEx Cup playoffs, giving him his best year on the PGA Tour. Another victory at Riviera moved him up to No. 2 in the world, a spot he still occupies.
Stricker is part of a strong field at Innisbrook for the Transitions Championship, a tournament on the rise despite being stuck between a World Golf Championship at Doral and a tournament hosted by Arnold Palmer.
He is among four of the top 10 from the world ranking – the others are Ian Poulter, Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington – and 14 of the top 25. Most of them are expecting a test as difficult as always.
Over the last five years, no other PGA Tour on this Florida swing has produced higher scores. There isn’t a lot of water – Innisbrook really doesn’t need much – for the emphasis is on being in the right position to approach greens that are firm and fast.
“A few of these greens are outrageously fast,” Kenny Perry said.
Poulter is making his debut at Innisbrook, mainly because he is not playing next week at Bay Hill or the week after in Houston, and the Englishman did not want a long break before the Masters.
“I like the way it sets up,” Poulter said. “There’s going to be some tricky tee shots out there, you’re going to have to move the ball right-to-left and left-to-right, which is good. It’s all about positional play. And the way the greens play, there’s a lot of emphasis on distance control of your irons. If you can keep it below the hole on most of these greens, you’re going to have a great chance.”
One guy will have a long break before the Masters – five months – and he isn’t playing anywhere in Florida.
For Tiger Woods, that’s truly a road less traveled.
He announced Tuesday that he would end his seclusion from a sex scandal by returning at the Masters, his first competition since winning the Australian Masters at Kingston Heath on Nov. 15.
Stricker is as curious as most how Woods will fare after such a long layoff.
“I would imagine he’s going to be a little rusty,” Stricker said. “He has not played a round of golf since November. Doesn’t matter who you are – you’re going to be competitively under the gun. You’re going to be a little bit rusty. How long is it going to take? Who knows? It could take nine holes for him to get back into it. It could take him a couple of holes. It could take him a couple of rounds.
“He’s a great player, great competitor, and so I expect him to be there at the end. The place – obviously, only Nicklaus has won more green jackets there – so he loves the place, and he feels good going around there. I expect him to do well and be there at the end.”