Stricker Begins the Long Road Back
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.
Molinari hopes to inspire others as Rocca inspired him
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Francesco Molinari was 12 years old when Costantino Rocca came within a playoff of becoming Italy’s first major champion at the 1995 Open at St. Andrews.
He remembers being inspired by Rocca’s play and motivated by the notion that he could one day be the player who would bring home his country’s first Grand Slam title. As he reflected on that moment late Sunday at Carnoustie it sunk in what his victory at The Open might mean.
“To achieve something like this is on another level,” said Molinari, who closed with a final-round 69 for a two-stroke victory. “Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Constantino in '95 coming so close. Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time, watching him vie for the claret jug.”
Molinari had already made plenty of headlines this year back home in Italy with victories at the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, and the Quicken Loans National earlier this month on the PGA Tour.
A major is sure to intensify that attention. How much attention, however, may be contingent on Sunday’s finish at the German Grand Prix.
“It depends on if Ferrari won today. If they won, they'll probably get the headlines,” Molinari laughed. “But, no, obviously, it would be massive news. It was big news. The last round already was big news in Italy.”
Molinari won’t have any competition for the front page on Monday; Ferrari didn’t win the German Grand Prix.
Schauffele on close call: Nothing but a positive
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Playing in a final group at a major for the first time, Xander Schauffele awkwardly splashed out of three pot bunkers, went out in 40 and still somehow had a chance to win at Carnoustie.
Playing the 17th hole, tied with Francesco Molinari, Schauffele flared his approach shot into the right rough and couldn’t get up and down for par. He dropped one shot behind Molinari, and then two, after the Italian birdied the final hole.
Just like that, Schauffele was doomed to a runner-up finish at The Open.
“A little bit of disappointment,” he said. “Obviously when you don’t win, you’re disappointed. Hats off to Francesco. I looked up on 17 and saw he got to 8 under, which is just incredible golf and an incredible finish.”
Schauffele did well to give himself a chance. The 24-year-old was in the final group with Spieth, but both youngsters fell off the pace after rocky starts. The Tour’s reigning Rookie of the Year birdied the 14th but couldn’t convert a 15-footer on the treacherous 16th that would have given him a one-shot cushion.
“It’s going to go in the memory bank as a positive,” he said. “I had a chance to win a major championship. I was in the final group. I had to face a little bit of adversity early in the round, and I still gave myself a chance. Anyone can look at it however they want to, but I’m going to look at is as a positive moving forward and try to learn how to handle the situations a little better next time.”
They came, they saw and Molinari conquered The Open
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – From a perch above the 17th tee, next to a three-story grandstand that may well be the tallest structure on the Angus coast, the 147th Open Championship unfolded with more twists and turns than a Russian novel.
It was all there like a competitive kaleidoscope to behold. In quick order, Rory McIlroy’s title chances slipped away with a whimper, a par at the last some 100 yards to the left of the 17th tee. Tiger Woods, seemingly refreshed and reborn by the Scottish wind, missed his own birdie chance at the 16th hole, a half-court attempt near the buzzer for a player who is 0-for-the last decade in majors.
Moments later, Kevin Kisner scrambled for an all-world par of his own at No. 16 and gazed up at the iconic leaderboard as he walked to the 17th tee box, his title chances still hanging in the balance a shot off the lead.
Francesco Molinari was next, a textbook par save at No. 16 to go along with a collection of by-the-book holes that saw the Italian play his weekend rounds bogey-free. He also hit what may have been the most important drive of his life into what a Scot would call a proper wind at the 17th hole.
Xander Schauffele, who was tied with Molinari at the time at 7 under par, anchored the action, missing a 15-footer for birdie at the 16th hole. Moments later the Italian calmly rolled in a 5-footer for birdie at the last to finish his week at 8 under par.
All this unfolded over a frenzied final hour of play at Carnoustie, offering just a taste of what the other four-plus hours of play resembled.
“I couldn't watch Xander play the last two holes, to be honest,” said Molinari, who became the first Italian to win a major. “That's why I went to the putting green, because I probably would have felt sick watching on TV,”
Carnoustie may not be the fairest of the Open rotation courses, but it certainly delivers the dramatic goods regularly enough.
Woods’ prediction earlier in the week that this Open Championship would come down to no fewer than 10 would-be champions seemed hyperbolic. It turns out he was being conservative with his estimate.
All total, 11 players either held a share of the lead or moved to within a stroke of the top spot on a hectic Sunday. For three days Carnoustie gave, the old brute left exposed by little wind and even less rough. Earlier in the week, players talked of not being able to stop the ball on the dusty and dry links turf. But as the gusts built and the tension climbed on Sunday, stopping the bleeding became a bigger concern.
If most majors are defined by two-way traffic, a potpourri of competitive fortunes to supercharge the narrative, this Open was driven in one direction and a cast of would-be champions with a single goal: hang on.
A day that began with three players – including defending champion Jordan Spieth, Kisner and Schauffele – tied for the lead at 9 under, quickly devolved into a free-for-all.
Kisner blinked first, playing his first three holes in 3 over par; followed by Spieth whose poor 3-wood bounded into a gorse bush at the sixth hole and led to an unplayable lie. It was a familiar scene that reminded observers of his unlikely bogey at Royal Birkdale’s 13th hole last year. But this time there was no practice tee to find refuge and his double-bogey 7 sent him tumbling down the leaderboard.
“I was trying to take the burn out of the equation by hitting 3-wood to carry it. It was unlucky. It went into the only bush that's over on the right side. If it misses it, I hit the green and have a birdie putt,” Spieth said.
Schauffele’s struggles coincided with Spieth’s, with whom he played on Sunday, with a bogey at the sixth sandwiched between a bogey (No. 5) and a double bogey (No. 7).
This opened the door to what the entire golf world has awaited, with Woods vaulting into the lead at 7 under par, the first time since the ’11 Masters he’d led at a major, and sending a low rumble across the course.
Since Woods last won a major, that ’08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one leg, Spieth and Schauffele, who Tiger spotted four strokes on Sunday, graduated from high school; McIlroy went from phenom to four-time major winner and Donald Trump was transformed from being a TV celebrity to the President of the United States.
But the fairytale only lasted a few minutes with Woods playing Nos. 11 and 12 in 3 over par. They were the kind of mistakes the 14-time major champion didn’t make in his prime
“A little ticked off at myself, for sure. I had a chance starting that back nine to do something, and I didn't do it,” said Woods, who finished tied for sixth but will have the consolation prize of moving into the top 50 in the world ranking to qualify for the last WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in two weeks.
But as Woods faded, McIlroy made a familiar move, charging in an eagle putt at the par-5 14th hole to tie Molinari and Schauffele at 6 under par. The Northern Irishman would run out of holes, playing the final four in even par to finish tied for second, but the moment wasn’t lost on him.
“It was great, just to be a part of it and hear the roars. Tiger being back in the mix. You know, everything,” McIlroy said. “There's a lot of big names up there. It was nice to be a part of it. For a while, I thought Tiger was going to win. My mindset was go and spoil the party here.”
By the time the final groups reached Carnoustie’s finishing stretch it was a two-man party, with Molinari proving for the second time this month that boring golf can be effective.
Although he’d won the European Tour’s flagship event in May, Molinari decided to add the Quicken Loans National to his schedule because of his precarious position on the FedExCup points list (122nd) – he won that, too. The week before the Open, he fulfilled his commitment to play the John Deere Classic, a requirement under the PGA Tour’s new strength of field rule, and finished second.
Although his track record at The Open was nothing special – he’d posted just a single top-10 finish in his first 10 starts at the game’s oldest championship – his machine-like game was always going to be a perfect fit for a brown and bouncy links like Carnoustie and a topsy-turvy final round.
“I told his caddie earlier this week, because I didn’t want to say it to [Molinari], I have a good feeling this week,” said Molinari’s swing coach Denis Pugh. “It was the perfect combination of clarity and confidence.”
With the sun splashing against the baked-out fairways, Molinari emerged from the clubhouse, wide-eyed and a little dazed after what could only be described as a major melee, his no-nonsense, fairways-and-greens game the perfect tonic for an Open that defied clarity until the very end.
Spieth and Schauffele were put on the clock Sunday
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Contending in a major championship on what is largely considered the toughest major championship course can be hard enough, but as Jordan Spieth reached the 10th tee box, he was given another layer of anxiety.
Spieth, who was playing with Xander Schauffele on Sunday at Carnoustie, was informed that his group had fallen behind and been put on the clock. On the next tee, he was given a “bad time” for taking too long to hit his drive.
“I handled it OK, but looking back, you know, that was a turning point in the round,” said Spieth, who played Nos. 10 and 11 in even par and finished tied for ninth after a closing 76. “If you get 1 under on those two holes with a downwind par 5 left [No. 14], it's a different story.”
Spieth, who began the day tied for the lead with Schauffele and Kevin Kisner at 9 under, had dropped out the top spot with a double bogey-7 at the sixth hole. He was tied for the lead when officials put his group on the clock.
“I took over the allotted time on the tee on 11 to decide on 3-iron or 3-wood, but throughout the day, I think I played the fastest golf I've probably ever played while contending in a tournament,” he said.