Stricker Begins the Long Road Back

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Wednesday's first round match between 10th-seeded Padraig Harrington and 55th-seeded Steve Stricker marked an exhaustive end to one player's season and a breath of life to the other's career.
 
Harrington regards this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship as the final event of his 2000 season. The Irishman stated he plans to take six weeks off following his stay in Melbourne, Australia.
 
Unfortunately for Harrington, his vacation came a bit earlier than anticipated.
 
Harrington fell to Stricker 2-and-1 at the Metropolitan Golf Course.
 
Both Harrington and Stricker first made a name for themselves in 1996. Harrington won the Peugeot Open de Espana as a rookie on the European Tour. Stricker captured the Kemper Open and Western Open in his third full season on the PGA Tour.
 
By year's end Stricker had risen to 12th on the Official World Golf Ranking, while Harrington cracked the top 100 at 95th.
 
Since then, however, the Irishman's stock has risen while the American's has plummeted.
 
Entering Australia, Harrington is ranked 24th in the world. Stricker has fallen to 90th.
 
Since '96, Harrington has won twice and qualified for the '99 European Ryder Cup Team. Stricker has but a pair of runner-up finishes and an outstanding string of missed cuts to his credit.
 
The 33-year-old Wisconsin native is making his first official start since the Bell Canadian Open in September. He missed the cut that week, leaving him with a streak of four consecutive missed cuts entering the New Year.
 
So, all things considered, Stricker's first-round victory over Harrington was an upset. Right?
 
'In my mind I don't think it was an upset,' Stricker said. 'I feel like I am a good enough player to beat anybody if I get my game going.'
 
That's been a rare occurrence for Stricker, however.
 
After freefalling from 4th to 130th on the season-ending money list in 1997, Stricker temporarily got his game going near the end of his '98 campaign. The former Illinois All-America recorded eight top-10s in his final ten starts, including a second-place finish at the PGA Championship and ties for fifth at both the U.S. Open and Tour Championship.
 
Unfortunately, Stricker's late-season surge didn't prove to be a catalyst to the 1999 season. He made only half of what he had earned the year prior, dropping from 13th to 64th on the money list.
 

1999 was hardly a disaster, though. Stricker continued to display his apparent skills in the season's toughest tournaments. For the year, Stricker notched three top-10s; two of those came in a tie for sixth at THE PLAYERS Championship and a second straight fifth-place finish at the U.S. Open.
 
Last year, Stricker's topsy-turvy career again troughed as he missed ten cuts in 21 starts, including the aforementioned four in a row to close the season. He also managed but one top ten, thus increasing the lingering doubt as to whether he should quit the game.
 
'I think about it a lot,' said Stricker. 'It's just the fact that I'm disappointed because I know where I once was and how I feel about it right now. I am not fond of all the travel either. I feel like I have been doing this my whole life.
 
'I think if you talk to any Tour player they all have had those thoughts when they are not playing well. But I am a big competitor. I can't just give up. I mean, what would that show to everyone? I love to compete.'
 
Competitively, Stricker averages only about 20 starts each year on the PGA Tour. He admits that stashing away the clubs earlier than most may damage his game, 'but it's sure is great for the mind.'
 
In reference, Stricker said: 'I guess at some point in time if I want to become a better player, I'm going to have to play a little bit longer. Those are the decisions I'm going to have to make come the end of the year time.'
 
That decision might be made a bit easier this year with his wife, Nicki, returning to his bag at next week's Touchstone Energy Tucson Open. His mother plans to come along to help care for their 2-year-old daughter, Bobby Maria.
 
'I've got a lot of goals,' Stricker said. 'But my major one is getting back in the winner's circle again and trying to go to the level where I once played.'
 
Having disposed of one top-notch opponent, Stricker's quest will now continue against fellow American and 23rd-seeded Scott Verplank, who defeated Brent Geiberger over 19 holes in his first match. Should he get past Verplank, Stricker could be facing Justin Leonard in the Sweet 16.
 
But Stricker's not looking that far ahead.
 
He's well aware that to get back to where he once was he needs to establish firm footing before taking that giant leap.