Stricker the Yin to Tigers Yang


Ryder CupATLANTA – This week, the Red, White and Blue nation will look to Corey Pavin, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to stem an American overseas victory drought that stretches back nearly two decades.

But in the simplest terms, if Team USA is going to steal one across the pond for the first time since the 1993 Ryder Cup it likely won’t be the game’s titans or America’s tactician that lead the way. It may well come down to the magical motivational powers of an unassuming Cheesehead.

Sean Foley has been charged with fixing Woods’ wayward action on the fly and it will be Pavin’s job to insulate his besieged star from the rigors of an away game, but ultimately America’s cup fortunes will rest with Steve Stricker, the understated undercard in last year’s power pairing at the Presidents Cup.

Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker
Steve Stricker could be the perfect team member to solve the Tiger Woods Ryder Cup equation. (Getty Images)

At Harding Park Stricker and Woods, every bit an odd couple personality-wise, went 4-0 in team play, rolling through all of International captain Greg Norman’s comers and staking the U.S. side to a five-point victory.

Last week at East Lake Stricker played the role to perfection, warning that a 4-0 week at Celtic Manor would be a tall order and even going so far as to dismiss the certainty of Tiger-Steve Part 2, which is about as likely as an Indian summer in Wales.

Know this about the 2010 Ryder Cup, Stricker and Woods will be paired together, it will rain and the European crowds will wear the visiting team out with choruses of “Ole, Ole, Ole.” Whether that serenade echoes through the cold Welsh air late next Sunday will depend on Stricker’s ability to rekindle that Harding Park magic.

And if Stricker does turn out to be the tonic that cures Woods’ competitive ills he will be the Man of the Match, regardless of record or outcome, particularly considering Woods’ historic team woes in the biennial grudge match.

The world No. 1’s Mendoza Line team record (7-12-1) in the Ryder Cup is one of the game’s great mysteries, like fliers and lag putting, and illustrates how difficult it has been for American captains to find Woods a functional partner.

In 11 Ryder and Presidents Cups Woods has had 17 different partners and of the players he played with more than once just four of them – Stricker, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III and Charles Howell III – have played better than .500 ball.

“When you become his partner you are immediately pulled into a difficult situation,” said Furyk, who is a combined 5-3-1 in Ryder and Presidents Cup play paired with Woods. “It’s an intense atmosphere. He’s used to it, but once you’re paired with him you have to learn to deal with it.”

Furyk may have been the first to overcome the Tiger effect, going 2-2 with him at the K Club in 2006.

“Our first match together I played awful. I was hurt, but he had the other two guys 1 down with his own ball, minimum,” said Furyk of his opening-day fourball victory over Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie. “I got back to the team room and joked, ‘I don’t know what’s so hard about playing with him?’”

But what seemed so easy for Furyk has been like long math to others. In 2004, Woods and Mickelson went 0-2 on Friday and haven’t played together since, ditto for Justin Leonard (0-1-1 in Presidents and Ryder Cup play), Fred Couples (1-2) and Mark O’Meara (1-2). One would think all that would be required of a Woods partner is to show up on time. One would be wrong.

Part of the problem seems to be the pressure a Woods pairing brings to a partnership.

Hunter Mahan has never been paired with Woods in a cup match, but he did have a similar encounter with Mickelson in his first cup (2007 Presidents Cup) and can relate.

“With Phil (at Royal Montreal) I worried myself into a frenzy. I wanted to win every match,” Mahan said. “(At Celtic Manor) I would not put Jeff Overton with Tiger. (Overton) is high energy. He might burst playing with Tiger.”

Most attribute the problem to simple chemistry. Similar games may be an advantage, but in the final analysis if Player A and B are type A and B personalities the pairing hasn’t worked.

But that only partly explains why Stricker and Woods clicked so well last year. Stricker is a dedicated family man who spends much of his offseason in a hunting blind and probably doesn’t even own a red golf shirt. Woods is intense and demonstrative and ventures to Wisconsin only for the occasional PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

So why the Harding Park homerun?

“He doesn’t see me as a threat to him. He sees me as a friend,” Stricker said. “When I was younger I wanted to always beat him, but I’m passed that point. I know where I stand in the pecking order in all this.”

Of course Stricker’s Ben Crenshaw-like short game last fall also had a lot to do with the duo’s success. Competitively the two are a ham-and-egg special, Stricker a fairways-and-greens specialist with a deft short game to Woods’ bombing, explosive style.

“Man, I helped out on two holes pretty much, well, three holes all day. Otherwise I was cheerleading all day,” Woods said of his partner on Saturday last year at Harding Park. “It's easy to play with the guy because we all know what a great player he is, and he putts it great, he gets it up-and-down great, and it takes a lot of pressure off me, I'll tell you that.”

In a counter-intuitive way Woods may also feed off Stricker’s stoic Midwestern sensibilities, a perfect yin to Woods’ steely-eyed, fist-pumping yang.

“I feel like I could be a calming influence to him,” Stricker said. “Hopefully he feels comfortable with me.”

And at Celtic Manor, more so than Foley’s counsel or Pavin’s protection, Woods needs calm. Woods needs Stricker.