Stricker's schedule paying off, could be blueprint for others

By Jason SobelMarch 27, 2013, 10:29 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – Hey, did you hear the one about the old professional golfer? He didn’t retire – he just lost his drive! You know, speaking of retirement, it’s no pressure, no stress and no heartache – unless you play golf!

Without turning the local 19th hole into a Chuckle Hut with a two-drink minimum, the cross-referenced list of golf and retirement jokes is as long and painful as it usually takes to tell them. We get it. People get old, they stop working, they play more golf, hilarity ensues. (Hold the hilarity.)

When it comes to elite-level pros, the stark reality is that old golfers never retire. As Neil Young might shriek, they either burn out or fade away.

Jerry Barber is the oldest player to play in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, competing in the 1994 Buick Invitational at the age of 77 years, 10 months and 9 days. You’ll never believe it, but he missed the cut. Arnold Palmer was 74 when he played for the last time. Gary Player was 73 – but that’s only if you believe the 1,000 sit-up-a-day marvel won’t plan a comeback anytime soon.

All of which leads us – as methodically as one of those tired jokes – to Steve Stricker.

At 46, Stricker would like everyone to know that he’s neither old nor retired, though the latter needs a little more explanation. The 12-time champion has elected to play what is artfully being called a “selective schedule,” which shouldn’t be confused with other elite players’ “selective schedules” because, well, it’s even more selective.

So far this season, he has played three events, with this week’s Shell Houston Open serving as his fourth. As of now, the plan is to compete in 11 total tournaments, though Stricker maintains his competitive juices could get the better of him later in the year.

Shell Houston Open: Articles, videos and photos

“That can change, I guess, depending on how I play the next seven events or eight events,” he admitted. “If I'm up high on the FedEx Cup or if I have an opportunity to make the Presidents Cup team, I maybe play the playoff events, something like that. I still plan on playing my 11 and going from there.”

Whatever he’s doing is working. Stricker finished in sole possession of second place at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, in a share of fifth at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and added another solo second at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He's already racked up $1.82 million in earnings, which based on last year’s money list would place him 44th at season’s end without pocketing another dime.

Of course, that’s highly unlikely. While most players need plenty of “reps” – as Tiger Woods famously calls them – in order to contend for titles, the less Stricker plays, the better he seems to fare.

“I always have come out and done fairly well when I'm fresh,” he said. “Whether that's a mental thing, I don't know. But I enjoy coming out. I feel like I'm a little bit easier on myself. I'm fresher mentally. I feel like there's a little more bounce in my step.”

All of which should lead to one very important question: If Stricker can play some of his best golf with a limited schedule, can this strategy serve as a blueprint for the likes of fellow 40-somethings Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk in coming years?

It’s a relevant query with so many big-name stars reaching the point in their careers where the week-in, week-out grind may not hold much allure. Playing less affords more family time at home while, unlike in previous generations, the need to earn money isn’t much of a dangling carrot. To wit: Stricker’s three-event total this season is just $41,857 behind Palmer’s career haul.

Of course, more professional golfers in their mid-40s are forced into a “selective schedule” than actually select it. Which is to say, you’d better find success if you want to enjoy the spoils.

Based on his eight victories in the previous four years, Stricker is fully exempt on the PGA Tour through the year 2017. If he so chooses, he could then use a one-time top-25 career earnings exemption followed by a top-50 exemption (he’s currently eighth on the all-time list), which would keep him as a full-time member through the age of 52. Failure to play the minimum of 15 tournaments only eliminates his voting privileges for such things as Player of the Year.

Meanwhile, he’s already easily qualified for each of the four major championships and WGC events – a schedule which could someday make him a trailblazer when it comes to how elite players view the back nine of their careers.

“I suppose you could play like that, if you’re exempt for those tournaments,” said 39-year-old Lee Westwood. “I could only talk for myself, but I’ve always felt that I need to play a bit. I find it difficult to take six weeks off and then come back in match fit and ready. But he’s done it his whole career, so why not? You have to do whatever suits you.”

For now, spending his off weeks in snowy Wisconsin while driving his kids to school has suited Stricker just fine – both on and off the course. He attended the Big 10 Conference men’s basketball tournament for the first time and plans on catching a few Final Four games in Atlanta before driving over to Augusta for the Masters. Meanwhile, his peers will be grinding away at the range and practice green, trying to find the form that never seems to leave him.

So, that old joke about retirement being no pressure, no stress and no heartache unless you play golf? It doesn’t apply to Steve Stricker.

Then again, neither does the term retirement.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.