KAPALUA, Hawaii – Steve Stricker ambled down the Plantation Course's first fairway on Monday afternoon like a man on the verge of retirement. Which he is, sort of. Stricker has already announced that he plans to play no more than 10 events this season, part of a plan that will allow him more time with family at home and more time working toward his new charitable foundation.
As he made his way toward a drive that was (for him, at least) pummeled down the fairway, Stricker wasn't hobbling because of age – he's only 45, which is hardly ancient in pro golfer years. Nor was it a crutch for poor play. One hole earlier, he actually sat down in the middle of the fairway and stretched, the very picture of a player in pain. No matter. He simply stood up, went through his pre-shot routine and holed an eagle pitch from 67 yards to claim a share of the lead.
It's difficult to keep an injury under wraps while walking and swinging and walking again, but damned near impossible when a guy breaks up that process by wincing and limping and stretching his way around the course.
By the time he had reached the next hole, just about every fan in attendance knew of his ailment – and if they didn't, they quickly found out. And so while Stricker struggled his way down the fairway, they called words of encouragement toward him from behind the gallery ropes.
'You can do it, Steve!'
'Stay tough, Stricks!'
The last comment got his attention. Stricker made a sharp right turn and retreated toward the ropes, where wife Nicki not only knew how to get his attention, but knew what he needed.
It turns out he’s dealing with … something.
“Nobody knows if it's a muscle with pressure on the sciatic nerve or if there's a problem with a disk,” Stricker explained. “My back feels great. I don't feel tight. I don't feel stiff. Just every time I get over to my left side, I'm getting a shooting pain down my leg.”
After three days of delays and cancellations due to gusting winds, call this an imperfect storm. Stricker was forced to play 36 holes on the PGA Tour’s hilliest course while enduring an injury. It was enough that prior to the round he alerted a rules official to the prospect that he might not be able to go the distance.
All of which makes it even more impressive that Stricker not only finished both rounds, but posted scores of 71-67 to find himself in second place entering the final 18 holes, just three strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson.
“I think I'll be able to play tomorrow,” he said of the chance to defend his title. “What am I, in second place? I'm three back, so yeah, I've got a chance. I'll go out there and give it a whack, give it a try. Yeah, who knows what can happen? Maybe I'll feel great tomorrow.”
More than a few observers commented that after the start-stop-start-stop nature of the last three days, this week's eventual contenders would need to be armed less with sweet swings and deft putting strokes and more with the mental fortitude necessary to block such thoughts from the forefront of their minds. Considering that inner strength has been a hallmark of Stricker's career, it should come as little surprise that on a day walking 36 holes with an injury, he did his best grin-and-bear-it routine.
“To be able to do that on that golf course with as much pain as he's in is pretty impressive,” playing partner Brandt Snedeker said. “I was giving him a hard time walking up 9. I was going, ‘How am I going to beat you if you've got two good legs? I can't beat you with only one.’ It's tough to watch him because I know he's in pain. Of all days to go 36, not feeling good on this golf course in this wind, it would be a worst-case scenario, but he played great.”
On Tuesday, Stricker will be back out on the Plantation Course, once again wincing and limping and stretching his way around the course. That may be the worst-case scenario for most players, but he just keeps going, channeling the physical pain into mental strength.
That doesn’t mean he can’t use a little help. As he walks through the course in hopes of securing yet another victory, at some point Stricker will hear a familiar voice.
Once again, he will gingerly make his way to the gallery ropes, knowing what he needs to go the distance.