Last season he was the PGA TOURS Comeback Player of the Year, climbing from No. 162 to 34 on the money list and making 15 of 17 cuts despite limited status.
You dont want to win that award too many times, Stricker said cautiously.
Prior to that he lost his card in 2004 and questioned his desire to play the game that was his living. I wasnt sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, he said.
And worse, he added, I beat myself up for a while.
At the root of his problems was a driver swing that produced either snap hooks or high blocks. He found a way around it for a while thanks to putting and pure talent. At the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee he finished second to Vijay Singh despite never taking driver out of the bag all week.
But the spiral continued downward. Finally, through sure dint of hard work, Stricker straightened his way out of what had turned into a nightmare slump.
And suddenly now the 40-year-old Stricker finds himself poised to come all the way back from the cant miss label he earned 11 years ago when he won twice on TOUR, including a tour de force victory at the 1996 Western Open where he spent the week hitting medium and short irons into the par 5s and beating everybody in the field by eight shots.
Suddenly Steve Stricker finds himself poised to surge Sunday in the final round of the Open Championship if Sergio Garcia stumbles.
Garcia and Stricker will be the last twosome off at Carnoustie where the Spaniards lead is three over Stricker, whose lead over a group tied for third, is also three.
Until last year, Stricker had been down so long it looked like up thanks to injuries and the chronic wildness with the driver. He still gets emotional talking about it and those scars surfaced during a post-round interview.
This is part of my problem, Stricker said, fighting back tears. I need to get tougher on the inside.
The unassuming Stricker was plenty tough Saturday at Carnoustie where he spent just 23 putts while authoring a competitive course record of 7-under 64 which left him 6-under for the week. The 64 was one shot off the lowest score ever carded by anybody in a major championship anywhere.
Stricker birdied his first three holes and four of the first five en route to an outgoing 31. Stout par saves at Nos. 15 and 18 coming home kept his round bogey free. In his words, it was a clean card.
And it would have pushed him even closer to the lead if Garcia hadnt fashioned a clean card of his own to cement the 54-hole lead at 9-under. The previous lowest Open Championship rounds at Carnoustie were the 65s turned in by Garcia Thursday and Aussie Jack Newton in 1975.
A quick statistical check shows we shouldnt be surprised. Stricker entered the week ranked second in Rd. 3 scoring average on the PGA TOUR. He has also pushed his way up to No. 16 in the Official World Golf Ranking and 11th on the FedExCup point standings.
So how has Stricker done on Sundays this year?
His TOUR scoring rank is 64th in that category. Garcias is 38th.
Stricker has hit 31 of 45 fairways the first three rounds ands isnt afraid to unsheathe the driver any more. By comparison, two-time defending champion Tiger Woods has struggled off the tee and fought his swing all week. Woods trails Garcia by eight shots.
Ive still given myself a chance to win, Woods said after a Saturday 69.
But Strickers chances are better. He finished in the top 10 at the U.S. Open last year and was hanging around the top of the leaderboard late Sunday at Oakmont in last months U.S. Open.
Yes, Stricker still has self-doubts, a golfing character flaw Garcia has shown no signs of evidencing this week. But Garcia, who carries the hopes of Europe and the burden of having never won a major championship, will face more pressure.
If you have ever met Steve Stricker, you know why it is impossible not to like him personally. It was very difficult this week for him to skip his home game and fifth major'The U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, an event he hadnt missed since 1990.
This is his first British Open since 2002.
But Steve Stricker is back. Hes back at the Open Championship. Back at the top of the leaderboard. And back from the depths.
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