MARANA, Ariz. – Steve Stricker begins the Match Play Championship as the No. 1 seed, which speaks to two developments.
Tiger Woods is not playing golf at the moment, and Stricker is playing it very well.
Stricker tees off Wednesday in the first round at Dove Mountain at two minutes past high noon in the Arizona desert, the time that traditionally is reserved for the top player.
Even now, Stricker has a hard time realizing how far he has come.
He is a past champion of this World Golf Championship, winning in 2001 under far different circumstances. His game was in such poor shape that Stricker slipped to No. 90 in the world ranking, and the only reason he got into the 64-man field is because a host of top players didn’t want to fly across oceans so soon after the holidays, especially knowing they could be eliminated in one day.
Stricker was looking for a caddie. Everyone turned him down.
“Maybe that tells you what state my game was in,” he said.
He wound up taking a friend from home, Tom Mitchell, then delivered a stunning victory. He mowed down Padraig Harrington, Scott Verplank and Justin Leonard, make a clutch putt to get past pesky Nick O’Hern, then won his last two matches. He was the No. 55 seed, at the time the highest seed to win the Match Play Championship.
Expectations are different these days. He’s more nervous than desperate.
“First of all, you have to play well,” he said. “And second of all, you have to dodge a player potentially that comes and plays really hot. I believe anybody in this field can beat any other player. That’s what makes this tournament very challenging. It scares me a little bit, too, to tell you the truth. Just because you never know what you’re going to get, or who you’re going to run into.”
The Match Play seedings are one way to measure the peaks and valleys of a career.
Michael Campbell of New Zealand has seen both extremes. He was the No. 64 seed in 2000 when he lost in the first round to Tiger Woods, and the No. 5 seed a year later. Lee Westwood played in the inaugural Match Play Championship as the No. 5 seed, and four years later was No. 59. He starts this year at No. 2.
Stricker made it all the way to the top, with an asterisk.
He will face Ross McGowan of England in the first round, and it’s worth noting that only one time in the 11-year history has the bottom seed won. That was Peter O’Malley of Australia beating Woods in 2002.
The talent gap is so razor thin this high in the world ranking that even on paper, some matches are impossible to predict.
Ian Poulter is the No. 9 seed, and for that he gets a first-round match against Justin Leonard, a former U.S. Amateur champion. Jim Furyk, the No. 3 seed, plays Scott Verplank, a teammate in two Ryder Cups.
Dustin Johnson, coming off a victory at Pebble Beach last week, takes on Camilo Villegas.
Perhaps the most intriguing is a battle of two youngsters with seemingly bright futures – 25-year-old Michael Sim of Australia against 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.
The matches will be tight. Most of them will be tense.
And the reward for the winners is to repeat the process on Thursday. There’s a reason they only play this format once a year.