Leading man


JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Steve Stricker grimaced tapping in his final putt for a record-tying 63 Thursday at the PGA Championship.

He grimaced again a moment later when his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, told him the 10-foot birdie chance he just missed would have given him the lowest 18-hole score ever shot in a major championship.

“I kind of wish I would have known it was for history,” Stricker said after coming out of the scoring trailer at Atlanta Athletic Club.

It seemed as if everyone knew that last putt was for the first-ever 62 in a major except Stricker.

“I was keeping the scorecard nice and neat for him,” Paul Casey said. “Damn.”

Casey is trying to beat Stricker this week, but he still couldn’t help hoping he was documenting history. Casey couldn’t help admiring Stricker’s scorecard as he scribbled numbers through the round. Seven birdies and no bogeys marked the 25th time a player shot 63 in a major championship and the 11th time in the PGA Championship.

“And he missed three putts from 8 feet or less,” Casey said. “Very impressive.”

Stricker, 44, knew he was putting for a 62, he just didn’t know that nobody had ever shot that score in a major.

“I didn’t put two and two together,” Stricker said.

Ultimately, Stricker didn’t want to make a big deal of a score posted in the first round of the year’s final major. Of all those 63s shot in majors, only five led to major championship victories.

“It’s a good start, that’s all it is,” Stricker said.

It’s a good start toward gaining Stricker a prize that’s eluded him despite being the highest ranked American at No. 5 in the world rankings. Stricker’s 0 for 52 trying to win majors. The closest he’s ever come was his second-place finish to Vijay Singh at the PGA Championship at Sahalee in ’98.

Six and seven years ago, Stricker was a journeyman struggling to win back his PGA Tour playing privileges. With a major swing overhaul, he improved his wayward driving, improved his iron play. With one of the best putting strokes in the game, one of the best wedge games, too, Stricker’s become a total player.

Watching Stricker piece together all the facets of his game, Tour brethren sound as if they’ve been waiting for a major moment like this.

Stricker is first in actual scoring (69.15) on the PGA Tour this year, first in birdie average and first in putting (strokes gained). He’s won twice this season, seven times in the last three seasons. His finish winning the John Deere Classic last month, when he made a spectacular birdie with a dazzling escape from a fairway bunker at the last hole, proved something to fellow pros about Stricker’s improving nerve under pressure.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him run away with this,” said Stewart Cink, winner of the 2009 British Open.

Should Stricker ride this run out, it would be a popular victory even outside the state of Wisconsin, where Stricker resides.

“Steve is quiet and shy, but his game does all the talking,” Cink said. “He’s not a Type-A personality, but his game is Type A-Plus.”

How popular is Stricker in Badgerland? It seems as if the folks from Wisconsin will forgive him for anything. Stricker went to the University of Illinois and roots for the Chicago Bears. Still, he’s beloved in the land of bubbling cheese pits and malt-and-barley lakes.

Stricker’s leading a Wisconsin charge on the leaderboard. Jerry Kelly, who like Stricker resides in Madison, Wis., was solo second after the morning wave, two shots behind Stricker, his good friend.

With Stricker being asked by international media what it was like to shoot a 63, Kelly popped open a door aside the stage.

“Hey, where are we going for dinner tonight?” Kelly bellowed.

Kelly saw more of Stricker’s career struggles than any other Tour pro. He knows more than most how hard Stricker worked to win PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year not just once, but two years in a row.

“Steve surprised everyone,” Kelly said. “But now it’s not surprising. Now, it’s ‘Oh, there’s Steve, look out.’”

Cink said Stricker’s swing ought to be a model for up-and-coming Tour pros even though he’s not a power player. Stricker averaged just 280 yards driving in the first round.

“Guys who hit it long, people say they’re the future of the game,” Cink said. “Steve Stricker is the future of the way the game ought to be played.

“There’s no wasted effort. His swing matches up with technology. His club stays square a long time through the hitting area.”

The real test for Stricker now, as it always is when he’s in the hunt, will be controlling his emotions. He’s cried after more than one victory. When he took the stage to accept the Golf Writers Association of America’s Jim Murray Award for his work with the media in April, the presenter good naturedly handed him a box of tissues. Stricker got a big laugh when he spiked the tissue box in mock displeasure.

“We’d all love to win a major, I’m no different,” Stricker said. “I try extremely hard at majors, but I’ve probably tried a little less harder the last few years than I had earlier in my career. That’s my game, my nature the last few years.

“I come here with expectations to play well, but not that added extra pressure that I have to play well.”

The formula is working so far, but Stricker would love to give it the ultimate test come Sunday.