Woods, Stricker form friendly, formidable pairing

By Randall MellSeptember 25, 2012, 12:00 pm

The message came through with no translation required.

With the American Ryder Cup team being finalized a few weeks ago, Tiger Woods crossed paths with Steve Stricker.

“Hey bud,” Woods told Stricker. “You know, there’s no way I’m playing with you at the Ryder Cup, so you better find somebody else to play with.”

Stricker loved it. In Woods’ code, he knew exactly what that meant. He knew it meant that Woods was fired up about partnering with him again when the Americans meet the Europeans at Medinah just outside Chicago this week.

Ryder Cup: Teams | Articles | Videos | Pics | Social

U.S. captain Davis Love III hasn’t announced his pairings publicly yet, but it will be an upset if Woods and Stricker aren’t back together for fourballs and foursomes.

Woods and Stricker have become the most formidable American pairing in international team matches today, and they both have some special mojo working in Chicago.

Woods has won two PGA Championships at Medinah and owns five other BMW/Western Open titles in suburban Chicago.

Stricker couldn’t have been more motivated to make this Ryder Cup team. It’s being played practically in his backyard. A Wisconsin native raised in Edgerton just a couple hours north of Chicago, Stricker played at the University of Illinois. He’s revered among Illini followers. He won the Western Open in ’96 and is a three-time winner of the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill. Stricker’s so beloved there, they gave away bobbleheads with his likeness at this year’s John Deere Classic.

As a golf partnership, Woods and Stricker were an instant hit when U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples first put them together at Harding Park three years ago. They rolled to a 4-0 mark with Couples never separating them.

“We really gel together,” Woods said of that first union.

At the last Ryder Cup in Wales, they teamed to go 2-1, once again never separating for the partnered events in the rain-adjusted schedule.

They’re 6-2 overall as partners in team events.

“Tiger and Stricker have had great success,” Love said. “I wouldn’t want to play against them, for sure.”

As an assistant captain in Wales, Love got to see the chemistry between Woods and Stricker on uncomfortable foreign turf.

“Steve’s said Tiger makes him feel comfortable,” Love said. “Well, you know what? I think Steve makes Tiger feel comfortable, and that's what you want. You want those guys to both be comfortable with the pairing.”

After Stricker was announced as the winner of the Payne Stewart Award at the Tour Championship last week, Woods sought him out and hugged him on the driving range.

This shapes up as a pivotal Ryder Cup for Woods because the event is so at odds with the rest of his terrific resume.

By the end of his career, Woods may go down as the most prolific winner in PGA Tour history. Yet, if the Americans lose the Ryder Cup this week, he may be on his way to being remembered as the biggest loser in American Ryder Cup annals.

This will mark Woods’ seventh Ryder Cup appearance, but he has played on just one winning team, at Brookline 13 years ago.

Woods is trying to avoid a fifth consecutive loss in the event. No American has played on five consecutive losing teams in Ryder Cup history.

“We didn't play well at the right time, and that's just the way it goes,” Woods said. “Hopefully, this year we'll play well at the right time.”

Woods is 13-14-2 in Ryder Cup play with most of his trouble coming in partnered matches. He’s 4-1-1 in singles. Throw out his partnerships with Stricker, and Woods is 3-6-1 in foursomes and 4-6 in fourballs.

Why the struggle with partners?

There are theories.

“In the early days, it was like Tiger going to the dentist,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said. “He wanted a good outcome, but nothing he looked forward to too much.

“The second part was he was so intimidating, he would intimidate his own partner, just because his aura was so amazing. It's changed. I think he's softened with Stricker and a little bit with Furyk, and I think now he's going to be a lot better team player than he was in the early days.”

Another theory was that Woods is less programmed for team competition.

“I don't know that Tiger's mindset as a golfer – how would you put this? – really lends itself to team play,” NBC’s Roger Maltbie said.  “Johnny has referred to it many, many times: The lone wolf mentality. I think that certainly is a quality that Tiger has as much or more than anybody I've ever witnessed.

“Tiger is his own entity, and I think mixing into a team format was difficult for him. I don't read too much into who is a good partner for Tiger or who is a bad partner for Tiger. I think it had more to do with how he viewed the game, how he approached the game, how he approached his career, what he wanted from the game. I think that’s changed as he’s gone along.”

Stricker didn’t play on those early Woods’ teams. Stricker played his first Ryder Cup with Woods in 2010, his first Presidents Cup with him in 2009.

Asked about Woods’ team struggles, Stricker shrugs his shoulders.

“I don’t know,” Stricker said. “He has been as much a team player as anybody when I have been part of these teams. At every one of them, he was trying to win. I’ve been paired with him, and he is as fired up as anyone. He’s so competitive. He doesn’t like to lose at anything. It’s why he has won 74 times on the PGA Tour. I think it’s all important to him.”

Woods’ camaraderie with fellow players has been noticeably on display the last couple years. It goes way beyond the friendship with Rory McIlroy. Back at the WGC-Bridgestone, South African Branden Grace was paired for the first time with Woods. Grace called Woods “the nicest guy I’ve ever played with.”

That’s pretty much what most PGA Tour pros will tell you about Stricker.

Stricker was presented this year’s Payne Stewart Award for his respect of the game’s traditions, his charitable work and professionalism. The award is a testament to his standing in the game beyond his 12 PGA Tour titles.

Stricker, 45, and Woods, 36, are golf’s odd couple. Stricker’s the humble, Midwestern boy who frequently tears up with emotion and who slumped so badly in his career he was twice named Comeback Player of the Year. Woods is the California kid who became a superstar, the son of a U.S. Army Special Forces war veteran with his own affection for military life.

As teammates, though, Woods sees more similarities than differences with Stricker.

They’re both terrific putters, and Woods says they plot their way around courses similarly.

“I think we approach the game the same way, with the same mentality,” Woods said. “We just play it differently. I hit the ball a little bit further, but our mentality and how we play and how we compete is exactly the same.”

Stricker has a special gift for uniting unlikely forces.

As a Wisconsin boy, he’s a Chicago Bears fan. He also has that University of Illinois degree. Uniting folks from Wisconsin and Illinois over any cause is quite the trick, but you’ll see them united in support of Stricker at Medinah.

Stricker says he never saw this partnership with Woods coming way back in ’97 when he played with Woods for the first time at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Though Stricker was coming off two wins in ’96 and a fourth-place finish on the PGA Tour money list, he was blown away seeing Woods’ superior gifts in that first pairing.

“I didn’t play well,” Stricker said. “I could see this guy was really good. I just thought he was at a different level than I was, and he always has been, and I’m fine with that. I think it just took me awhile to get to the point of feeling comfortable around him.”

Stricker didn’t really get to know Woods well until the start of the FedEx Cup in 2009. They began the playoffs with Woods No. 1 in FedEx Cup points and Stricker No. 2. They played the first two rounds of The Barclays together and the first two rounds of the Deutsche Bank Championship together. They struck up a friendship that led them to wonder how they would pair together for the upcoming Presidents Cup that year.

“It was kind of like trying to get a girlfriend in high school,” Stricker joked.

Woods told Couples he would like a Stricker pairing, and Stricker told Couples the same. And Couples put them together.

Stricker thinks it works for him because he is long past trying to compare himself with Woods.

“Tiger does extraordinary things that nobody else does,” Stricker said. “You just have to say, `That’s OK, that’s him.’ But I do some things that are good. I can’t drive it as far as Tiger does, or hit those towering irons way up in the air, but I can do other little things that make up for it. That’s what has given me the confidence to go out and play with some of these guys and be comfortable around them. I’m old enough, I’ve been around enough, that I feel OK about the differences.”

Woods and Stricker may have different demeanors, but their approaches both work well in match play. Woods won those three consecutive U.S. Junior and three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles and won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship three times. Stricker also won the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2001. Stricker’s match-play grit is so respected that the Americans sent him out first to lead off singles at Wales two years ago and he beat a red-hot Lee Westwood.

Woods and Stricker both won three points in a losing cause for the Americans in Wales.

 “I never saw this kind of pairing coming after that first time Tiger and I played together, the way we mesh together so well,” Stricker said. “I don’t even know why, but we get along really well. I respect him.”

The mutual respect should make them tough team to beat this week.

Click to check out Golf Channel's and NBC Sports' Ryder Cup coverage.

Getty Images

Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”

Getty Images

Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:11 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.

He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.

Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.

“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”

Getty Images

A performance fit for a King

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:08 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.

So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.

“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”

But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.

“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.

But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.

Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.

Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.

Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”

McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.

“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.

And entertained, of course.

Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.

“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"

McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.

During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.

But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.

“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.

McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.

“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.

Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.

And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.

“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.  

Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.

Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.

Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.

“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”

Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.

“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.

“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.

Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.

But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.

There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.

A kiss for his wife, Erica.

A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.

The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.

“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”

Getty Images

McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 1:06 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.

McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.

“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.

Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.

“It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”