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Weekly 18: Aces Have It

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DUBLIN, Ohio – Long stricken by poor ball-striking, Steve Stricker is streaking since using stricter discipline to become a stickler for sticking shots.

Say that five times fast. Or just one time fast.

His name may evoke tongue-twisters, but Stricker was smooth throughout the week at The Memorial Tournament, earning his 10th career PGA Tour title while posting four rounds in the 60s.

Even so, Stricker still doesn’t have the cachet of a Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson when it comes to his public persona. That’s not always such a bad thing, but as the Weekly 18 begins, all of the things that keep Stricker from being a superstar may in fact be what makes him one right now.

1. Not Your Average Bear

Stricker is a proven winner, with six PGA Tour wins since the beginning of the 2009 season, including a triumph at the Memorial Tournament this week.

He’s the No. 4-ranked golfer in the world and the top-ranked American player, higher than any of the single-named studs.

He’s an exciting player – despite his reputation – as evidenced by multiple eagles, a bevy of birdies and more par saves than the average Bear at Muirfield Village.

He’s emotional, never failing to shed a few tears after his victories.

He’s the quintessential nice guy. He’s a family man. He’s humble.

All of which leads to one burning question: Why isn’t Steve Stricker a bigger superstar?

Don’t mistake that query as an insinuation that he lacks talent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. He is such an elite-level player that it’s a quandary as to why he doesn’t own a larger Q-rating.

The truth is, all of those aforementioned reasons why Stricker isn’t the prototypical superstar are really what should propel him to such status. Nobody dislikes him, from fellow players to fans. Nobody roots against him. Nobody isn’t happy for the guy when he prevails over the field.

And yet, it still has the feel of David overcoming a group of Goliaths every time Stricker wins a title.

Shouldn’t everything that makes him a fan favorite also qualify him as not only one of the biggest names in the game, but the type of guy who can’t even go out in public without getting mobbed? Different people have different takes on why this hasn’t happened – and probably never will.

Just ask his caddie, who spends time with him away from the golf course and rarely sees their plans interrupted.

“He looks a little different at night, off the golf course, when he has his hat off,” Jimmy Johnson explained. “Let’s just say he’s a little thin on top.”

Just ask his fellow competitors, who maintain they have nothing but the utmost respect for the guy they call “Stricks.”

“Maybe it has to do with the media coverage,” said Matt Kuchar, who finished in a share of second place this week. “I just don’t know if steady players are that exciting. I mean, Tom Kite probably wasn’t the most exciting player in the world, but what he did worked, just like Steve. I would imagine Steve likes it just the way it is, too.”

“Steve is kind of a humble guy. He's a Midwest guy. That's his personality,” said Brandt Jobe, who shared runner-up honors with Kuchar. “He's one of the few guys that's won a lot of times that still sheds a tear when he wins. I think Steve is Steve. He's very down-to-earth and I don't think he draws attention to himself. Not that it's negative or positive, but I think he kind of enjoys the way things are and he's playing great.”

Then there’s tournament host Jack Nicklaus, who believes Stricker really is a superstar, even if it’s for different reasons than other players.

“I think he's a superstar in more ways than his golf game,” Nicklaus said. “I think he's been a superstar from the way he's behaved himself, the way he handles his game, the way he handles people and the way he handles fans. He's always done that and that to me is equally as important as how well you score. I've always felt that about Steve.”

See? Maybe superstars don’t have to have cool names. Maybe they don’t have to have an entourage. Or a fleet of expensive sportscars. Or an attitude.

Maybe superstars can simply be superstars because they’re among the best in the world at what they do. Because they’re genuine and unassuming and thoughtful. Because success means more to them than the flashier guys and they never take it for granted.

Maybe Stricker is the new breed of superstar. The kind who doesn’t pound his chest or sport any bling. The kind who appreciates the fan support and isn’t considered a villain by any of ‘em.

Most of all, maybe Stricker is a superstar for one major reason: He doesn’t think he is.

“No, I don't,” he said. “I've been up to No. 2 in the world, and I just go about my own business. I don't look at myself any differently. I just go out and play, you know, and I try to play well. And I'm on a great run these last five or six years and I just want to continue it.”

An elite world ranking. Great play. A sincere attitude.

All of it makes Steve Stricker is one of the game’s biggest superstars after all. Whether he likes it or not.

Three Up

2. Elliot Saltman

It was a feat at once impressive and unusual. Saltman aced the 17th hole at Celtic Manor in the opening round of the Wales Open, then followed by duplicating the achievement three days later.

Like I wrote, it was impressive. It even earned him a couple of bottles of champagne. But it wasn't that impressive.

Hey, Elliot. I know Yusaku Miyazato. And you, sir, are no Yusaku Miyazato.

As far as major tour hole-in-one feats are concerned, I’ll take Miyazato’s over that of Saltman. In the second round of the 2006 Reno-Tahoe Open, Miyazato posted a pair of aces. To analogize the situation to another game of skill, anyone who plays poker knows a pair of aces beats ace-high in one hand and ace-high three hands later.

That’s not to take away anything from the much-maligned Saltman, who was recently suspended by the European Tour for repeatedly mis-marking his ball on the greens.

'I'm just overwhelmed with it. Amazing,' said Saltman, playing just his fifth event since returning from that suspension. 'I hit a great 7-iron, it bounced once and in she pops. I'm so excited.'

Brittany Lincicome 

3. Brittany Lincicome

For one of the most talented players on the LPGA, this was a long time coming.

With a final-hole up-and-down for birdie, Lincicome earned her first victory since 2009 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic on Sunday, defeating fellow top players Jiyai Shin and Cristie Kerr by a single stroke.

I asked Lincicome afterward whether the winless streak has been weighing on her mind.

“Yeah, absolutely,” she said. “Each week, I’m like, ‘Alright, will it happen this week?’ And now it finally has. It’s early in the year still; we’ll see if we can get another one before the year is over.”

One? Lincicome has the type of raw power and touch around the greens that could someday earn her a handful of victories in a single season. This may very well be that season.

4. Augusta State

Finally the city of Augusta, Ga., is on the golf map!

I kid, of course, but the men’s golf team is doing a bang up job of showing the world that Augusta has more ties to the game than simply the year’s first major venue.

On Sunday, the Jaguars won their second consecutive national championship, defeating the University of Georgia in the title match.

It wasn’t without a few interesting side notes, either.

Augusta State coach Josh Gregory will go out a winner, as he is poised to take over this week as the coach at SMU, his alma mater.

Meanwhile, Patrick Reed, who won the clinching match, is in this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic field on the PGA Tour and will reportedly turn pro before teeing it up.

Considering how well Reed played during the week, he could increase awareness for Augusta on the golfing landscape even more very, very soon.

Three Down

5. Graeme McDowell

The week started benignly enough, with G-Mac returning to the scene of his Ryder Cup-clincher at Celtic Manor, even reenacting the final putt. (See “Video Clip of the Week” section for more.) And it continued nicely, as he opened with scores of 67-68 at the Wales Open to find himself near the top of the leaderboard entering the weekend.

That’s where it all went horribly wrong.

McDowell posted a quad, three doubles and three bogeys en route to a third-round 81 – his worst competitive score since he carded the same in the final round of the 2005 U.S. Open.

It’s been a continuing theme for the world’s fifth-ranked player. In eight stroke-play events worldwide since mid-March, he’s missed three cuts and hasn’t finished better than the T-30 he claimed this past week.

'I've probably made more doubles and triples this season than I have in years,” McDowell admitted.

If he wants to contend in his U.S. Open title defense next week, he’ll need to turn things around in a hurry.

6. Vijay Singh

It appears a major streak is about to end.

Singh hasn’t missed a major championship since the 1994 U.S. Open, but he appears resigned to the fact that he won’t compete in the upcoming edition of that event, ending his consecutive major streak at 67. 

The three-time major champion was entered in U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying, but decided against competing for 36 holes on Monday. He also told reporters that despite being entered in the field in Memphis, he is planning to withdraw from the field. If he competed, he could have qualified by ascending from No. 62 in the world into the top-50.

He does have one other way of getting into the field at Congressional, but it seems unlikely.

Last year, Singh received a special exemption from the USGA. While he could get another one, executive director Mike Davis has previously stated that he didn’t expect any exemptions to be granted for this year’s event.

7. Stomach ailments

Something fishy was going down in one rental house this past week. Maybe it was the fish.

In three consecutive days at the Memorial, Bill Lunde, Nick Watney and D.J. Trahan were each forced to withdraw due to stomach issues. The common bond? All three stayed in the same house and ate meals together.

Meanwhile, the remaining member of the foursome remained peculiarly healthy.

So I asked Charley Hoffman, “Um, did you poison your housemates?”

“Hey, you gotta win out here somehow,” he responded with a mischievous laugh.

Hold your anger. He was just kidding. At least, I think he was.

Three Wishes

8. I wish every major tour would consider the following idea.

I’ve always been a fan of easily implemented ideas that improve the state of the game. This one certainly qualifies.

In the opening round of the Memorial Tournament, Roland Thatcher hit what he believed to be a well-struck second shot into the par-5 15th hole that should have set up an eagle opportunity. Instead, the ball landed a yard short of the green, bounded off a sprinkler head and wound up 50 yards over the green. End result? Bogey.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence, either. One day later, Rickie Fowler suffered a similar fate on a similarly well-struck approach shot.

This is a problem for which Thatcher believes he has an easy solution.

By placing a grass or artificial turf padding over each greenside sprinkler head that mirrors the nearby terrain, players wouldn’t suffer such consequences on otherwise good shots. Considering the sprinkler heads aren’t a natural part of the course anyway, covering them up would allow the course to play truer to its natural surface.

It wouldn’t be difficult to implement, either. Members of the grounds crew could add the padding in the mornings, then simply remove them once the final group plays through each evening. Since the sprinklers aren’t in use during competition anyway, there’s no reason this shouldn’t happen.

It’s an idea so sensible, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been implemented yet.

9. I wish the thoughts of Davis Love III would be embraced by more players.

As usual, there will be some very good players – even some who are capable of winning – absent from this month’s U.S. Open because they failed to qualify. There will also be many who don’t play Congressional because they didn’t even try.

Whether it’s apathy toward the year’s second major or a reluctance to compete in a 36-hole qualifier, there are always those who don’t even take a chance at reaching the field.

As Love told a gaggle of scribes after Thursday’s opening round at Muirfield Village, the experience of trying to qualify and competing in majors will pay off for players in the long run.

“I heard some players say they’re going to skip qualifying, then have two weeks off in a row and I'll be ready,” Love said. “For what? So you'll be ready for the AT&T?

“I’m telling my son [Dru] now, he’s entered in U.S. Junior Amateur qualifying and U.S. Amateur qualifying. He said, ‘Do you think I can win the U.S. Amateur?’ I said, ‘If you get really hot, but you need to practice qualifying. You don't need to show up when you’re 20 and say, I’m ready to win the Amateur.’

“A guy might feel like now he can't win the U.S. Open. But he still needs to go try to qualify.”

Amen.

10. I wish Charl Schwartzel wasn’t being saddled with a reputation as a “cheater.”

When you’re on the golf course, it’s sometimes difficult to realize what is big news and what isn’t. I was on the 11th hole Friday afternoon when Schwartzel drove his tee shot left and then waited on a ruling. While waiting out the typical player/official conversation, I checked my phone and saw that there was plenty of discussion about it on Twitter, which in turn led me to realize that the Golf Channel telecast was airing the entire process.

And so what is usually a fairly typical decision became a hot topic when analysts questioned whether the right call was being made.

Nothing wrong with raising that question. It’s the analysts’ job to, well, analyze such things and proffer opinions.

What’s completely incorrect is the insinuation from some fans – I heard from plenty of ‘em via tweets – that Schwartzel is a “cheater” and was trying to skirt the rules by requesting an unnecessary ruling.

I spoke with PGA Tour rules official Jon Brendle and Golf Channel interviewed Schwartzel after the incident. (You can read their thoughts here) While each of them maintained that it was a difficult ruling, neither believed there was anything improprietous about it, nor did Schwartzel think it would weigh on his conscience for any reason.

If you think Schwartzel received an unfair ruling, that’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion – and you may not be wrong about that. To call him a cheater or suggest that he doesn’t compete with honor, however, is to completely miss the point in this situation.

11. Video Clip of the Week:

11. You’ll have to either turn your head or your computer, but it’s worth it to watch Graeme McDowell reenact his Ryder Cup-clinching putt at Celtic Manor – much to the delight of all the fans: Click here for video

12. Tweet of the Week:

@JustinRose99 Just been called Mr Scott all night by our waiter! Funny how girls don't seem to make that mistake!

13. Stat of the Week:

Stricker played the front nine at Muirfield Village in 20 under par with scores of 33-30-31-30.

Not enough? Here’s another…

Stricker played holes 7 through 9 in 11 under for the week.

Need one more? Here you go…

He played the par-3 eighth hole in 5 under.

That would be birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie.

14. On the Hot Seat:

Patrick Cantlay

The list of players who have won the Jack Nicklaus Award at the Division I level reads like a who’s who of accomplished professionals over the past two-plus decades.

From Phil Mickelson (three times) to David Duval to Tiger Woods to Luke Donald to Hunter Mahan, winning the award doesn’t ensure success, but it almost always leads to it down the road.

The most recent recipient is Patrick Cantlay, a freshman at UCLA who was honored by Nicklaus on Sunday after previously receiving the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top first-year player. It all earned him one more award, too: A place on the weekly Hot Seat.

Q: Jack Nicklaus Award, Pac-10 Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year – what does all of this mean to you?

A: It means a lot. It’s everything you ever dreamed of doing your first year in college. It’s been exciting and a lot of fun.

Q: Did you think it would happen this quickly?

A: I never really thought about it. You just try to take it one week at a time. It just worked out.

Q: What are your career goals? Going to turn pro or stay in college?

A: I’ll be there four years and get my degree.

Q: Definitely?

A: Yes.

Q: You’ve won all of these awards already. What do you do for an encore the next three years?

A: You know, try to win as many tournaments as I can, have a good time and finish school.

Q: You look at the list of guys who have won the Jack Nicklaus Award from the Division I ranks and there’s hardly a miss in there. Almost every single one is either on tour or has been on tour. Do you look at that and get some confidence knowing the history behind it?

A: Yeah, it’s great to see all of those guys and see that they have success out there. Hopefully someday that can be me.

Q: You said during the winner’s press conference that your best shot this year was a 4-iron from – how far exactly?

A: I was 250 to the flagstick. I landed it 225 or so.

Q: That’s kind of far, you know.

A: Yeah, I tagged it pretty good.

Q: Do you still have finals for school?

A: Yes, next week.

Q: How excited are you for that?

A: Oh, elated.

Q: How are your grades so far?

A: They’re OK. I’m right around 3.3 or 3.4.

Q: That’s pretty solid. So you can play golf, you’ve got good grades. What aren’t you good at?

A: I’m sure there’s something. I’m not too great at fishing.

15. Fact or Fiction

Luke Donald 

Luke Donald has played too much golf lately.

It’s a valid point, considering in the last four weeks, the No. 1-ranked player has played 318 holes of competitive golf.

That would be 72 holes at The Players Championship; 101 at the Volvo World Match Play Championship; 73 at the BMW PGA Championship; and 72 at the Memorial Tournament.

Throw in three pro-am rounds and a handful of practice rounds and he’s easily eclipsed the 400-hole mark in the past month.

“I am tired,” he said. “More so from not having full strength – I had a couple bouts with strep throat, just wasn’t feeling my best and that’s always tough. And obviously playing in contention every week takes it out of you, as well. I’ll definitely take a couple of days off after [Monday].”

That’s right. Donald won’t follow that string by taking a nice long nap, but will instead tee it up at Congressional for a practice round.

It all begs the question: Has it been too much?

In two words: No way.

During the recent stretch, he’s gone T-4, solo second, win and T-9, T-7 while – oh, by the way – reaching No. 1 in the world, too. Players have got to strike while the irons are hot and that’s exactly what Donald has done. Will it catch up with him later, perhaps even at next week’s U.S. Open? Perhaps, but that shouldn’t be of any worry.

Donald teed it up at four very good events and played very solid golf at all of ‘em. He wouldn’t do it any differently if given the chance, so we shouldn’t question his decision-making, either. Consider the above statement FICTION – and rest easy knowing the top-ranked player will get some rest this coming week.

16. Quote of the Week

“Steve is a great guy, and I mean, he's got a great game.  He drives it really straight and as everyone knows, he putts the $#!% out of it.” – Dustin Johnson on Steve Stricker.

17. From the Inbox

As always, you can reach me on Twitter at @JasonSobelGC with your golf-related questions…

@DaveCC1109 What is holding Dustin Johnson back?

Hmm, I didn’t realize he was being held back. With his strong finish at the Memorial, he now has four top-10s already this year. Even though he won’t turn 27 for a few more weeks, he already owns four career PGA Tour victories. And he’s previously contended in a few major tournaments. What more would you like? Just be patient. DJ has a world of talent. There’s absolutely nothing holding him back.

@TheSLReport Will Congressional provide more challenges to the players off the tee or playing into the greens at the US open?

If I can only pick between the two, I’ll contend that driving accuracy will be a better barometer of success than ball-striking. They kind of go hand-in-hand, but players are going to need to keep it in the short stuff just to have a chance to score. More important than either of these, of course, is chipping and putting. Those who scramble and get up-and-down better than their peers will find the most success.

@JayReynoldsATX How long do you think @Luke_Donald holds #1 ranking?

It may only be a matter of time before someone else overtakes him again. Even Donald understands that, saying just minutes after claiming the ranking last week, “Hopefully I can hang onto it for a few more weeks.” However, don’t expect him to drop very far. With 15 top-10s in his last 16 starts, he’s been the most consistent player in the world. With those on his ledger for a while, he should remain near the top of the ranking.

@jeffdebalko Will Bay Hill and Memorial retain their prominence after Arnie and Jack are gone or will they go the way of the Nelson?

No offense to the legends, but players show up to tournaments more because of the host venues than the hosts themselves. Bay Hill and especially Muirfield Village are top-rate courses. As long as those two are still in the annual rotation, players will show up, even long after the tournament hosts are no longer around to greet them.

18. Photo of the Week

Charl Schwartzel 

He’s not only the Masters champion, Charl Schwartzel can also apparently walk on water. That’s a handy talent to own when traversing across hazards.