Mr Dependable

By John HawkinsJuly 14, 2010, 1:22 am

In a previous life, Steve Stricker was a rising young star whose breakthrough season, 1996, featured a pair of PGA Tour victories and a berth on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. His ballstriking was as dodgy as his putting was reliable, however, and when a man tries to make a living by making 15-footers for par, he eventually finds himself searching for reasons, answers and larger paychecks.

Stricker bottomed out in 2003, began the long climb back in ’06, and since the summer of ’07, he has won six tour events, four of them against premium fields. His golf swing, formerly an educated collection of moving parts, has become as airtight as any you’ll find. Seven years ago, Stricker ranked 190th in driving accuracy, hitting barely 48 percent of his fairways – fewer than some guys do by accident. This year, he’s 23rd, which is more than just turning things around.

Steve Stricker
Stricker’s improved accuracy should bode well for him at St. Andrews. (Getty Images)
From there, the game gets a bit easier. Improved position off the tee has helped Stricker become one of the tour’s best wedge players – he has ranked near the top in every category between 50 and 150 yards for three consecutive seasons. With virtually no wrist hinge in his short-iron backswing, Stricker's abbreviated takeaway produces a more manageable ball flight and less backspin. It also means those 15-footers for par are now 12-footers for birdie.

At 280 yards per drive, give or take a step, Stricker isn’t going to overpower courses, but with a scoring club in his hand, he has become precise and dependable. When you putt like he does, closer may be better, but anywhere on the green is OK. “Even when things weren’t going well, he still made more 40-footers than anyone alive,” says fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Kelly, a nod to his friend’s standing as one of the best distance putters in the business.

So he hits it straight, hits it tight and holes a lot of putts. One can see Stricker factoring prominently this week at St. Andrews, the biggest question being whether he’ll arrive in Scotland mentally refreshed after winning last week in the Midwest. Although the British Open can be a serious grind, Americans have won 11 of the last 15 gatherings – Tiger Woods three times, eight other Yanks once apiece.

There isn’t any real evidence to suggest heading overseas early helps you win the tournament, or that the adjustment to links golf requires lengthy preparation. At Carnoustie in 1997, Stricker played his way into Sunday's final group alongside Sergio Garcia, then missed three putts inside 5 feet on the front nine, a cause of death far more likely to afflict the man he was playing with.

Sergio would lose to Padraig Harrington in a playoff, and before long, tumble into the tailspin that continues to define his career. Stricker's comeback, meanwhile, was just beginning to take flight. Three years later, there isn't much left for him to do besides win a major. At age 43, there isn't much time left for him to do it.

What made last week’s victory so nice was the timing. Stricker heads into the biggest summer of his career in excellent form, with St. Andrews representing one of his better chances to claim a claret jug. His relatively low, right-to-left ball flight should prove valuable at the Old Course, where wind and rain have been dominating the week-long weather forecast. Veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson, who was on Nick Price’s bag when Price won his lone British title in 1994, has played a key role in transforming Stricker from a good player to a very good one. Never will that influence seem more crucial to their success than it will this week.

August’s PGA Championship offers Stricker a rare chance to play in a major in his home state. He didn’t qualify for the ’04 PGA at Whistling Straits – finishing 189th on the previous year’s money list will do that to you. With Tiger Woods still searching for his first victory in 2010, there is a FedEx Cup championship and a Player of the Year trophy to be had. So much fruit on the vine, only so many opportunities to pluck it.

Since leaving Charles Howell III to work for Stricker two years ago, a big part of Johnson’s job has been convincing Stricker that he is indeed one of the world’s best golfers. Humble to an extreme before he endured five years of futility, Stricker’s lack of self-confidence isn’t what it was in ‘03, but he’ll never acquire the alpha-dog traits of Woods or Phil Mickelson, either. After squandering a three-stroke lead with a final-round 77 at the 2009 Bob Hope Classic, Johnson saw the down side.

That seems like a long time ago. Five victories ago, to be exact. This time next week, maybe it will be six.

Rose wins; Aphibarnrat earns Masters bid in Indonesia

By Will GrayDecember 17, 2017, 1:59 pm

Justin Rose continued his recent run of dominance in Indonesia, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat snagged a Masters invite with some 72nd-hole dramatics.

Rose cruised to an eight-shot victory at the Indonesian Masters, carding bookend rounds of 10-under 62 that featured a brief run at a 59 during the final round. The Englishman was the highest-ranked player in the field and he led wire-to-wire, with Thailand's Phachara Khongwatmai finishing second.

Rose closes out the year as perhaps the hottest player in the world, with top-10 finishes in each of his final 10 worldwide starts. That stretch includes three victories, as Rose also won the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in a tournament since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, it took until the final hole of the final tournament of 2017 for Aphibarnrat to secure a return to the Masters. The Thai entered the week ranked No. 56 in the world, with the top 50 in the year-end world rankings earning invites to Augusta National. Needing an eagle on the 72nd hole, Aphibarnrat got just that to snag solo fifth place.

It means that he is projected to end the year ranked No. 49, while Japan's Yusaku Miyazato - who started the week ranked No. 58 and finished alone in fourth - is projected to finish No. 50. Aphibarnrat finished T-15 in his Masters debut in 2016, while Miyazato will make his first appearance in the spring.

The results in Indonesia mean that American Peter Uihlein and South Africa's Dylan Frittelli are projected to barely miss the year-end, top-50 cutoff. Their options for Masters qualification will include winning a full-point PGA Tour event in early 2018 or cracking the top 50 by the final March 25 cutoff.

Cabreras take 1-shot lead in Father/Son

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 11:23 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. birdied their last three holes for a 13-under 59 to take a one-shot lead Saturday in the PNC Father-Son Challenge.

Cabrera, a Masters and U.S. Open champion, is making his debut in this popular 36-hole scramble. His son said he practiced hard for 10 days. What helped put him at ease was watching his father make so many putts.

''We combined very well,'' Cabrera said. ''When I hit a bad shot, he hit a good one. That's the key.''

They had a one-shot lead over Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara, who are playing for the first time. That included a birdie on the last hole, which O'Meara attributed to the strength of his son.

''My little man hit it 58 yards by me on the 18th,'' said O'Meara, the Masters and British Open champion in 1998. ''It's a little easier coming in with a 6-iron.''

Defending champions David Duval and Nick Karavites rallied over the back nine at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club for a 61. They are trying to become the first father-son team to repeat as winners since Bernhard and Stefan Langer in 2006. Larry Nelson won two years in a row in 2007 and 2008, but with different sons.

''I'd imagine we have to break 60 tomorrow to have a chance to win, but hey, stranger things have happened,'' Duval said. ''I've even done it myself.''

Duval shot 59 at the Bob Hope Classic to win in 1999 on his way to reaching No. 1 in the world that year.

Duval and his stepson were tied with Bernhard Langer and 17-year-old Jason Langer, who made two eagles on the last five holes. This Langer tandem won in 2014.

Jack Nicklaus, playing with grandson G.T., opened with a 68.

Getty Images

Woods' 2018 schedule coming into focus ... or is it?

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 16, 2017, 5:46 pm

Two weeks after his successful return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ 2018 schedule may be coming into focus.

Golfweek reported on Saturday that Woods hopes to play the Genesis Open in February according to an unidentified source with “direct knowledge of the situation.”

Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg declined to confirm the 14-time major champion would play the event and told that Woods – who underwent fusion surgery to his lower back in April – is still formulating his ’18 schedule.

Woods’ foundation is the host organization for the Genesis Open and the event supports the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

The Genesis Open would be Woods’ first start on the PGA Tour since he missed the cut last January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Rose weathering delayed Indonesian Masters

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 3:52 pm

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Justin Rose held a three-stroke lead after eight holes of the third round Saturday when play was suspended for the day due to bad weather at the Indonesian Masters.

Rose was 3-under on the day and led his playing partners Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Scott Vincent. The Englishman led both players by a stroke after the second round was completed Saturday morning due to weather delays on Friday.

Brandt Snedeker withdrew with apparent heat exhaustion on Friday on the 11th hole of the second round. Ranked 51st in the world, he flew to Jakarta looking to move inside the top 50 by the end of the year and ensure a spot in next year's Masters.