Golf

Stricker returns to a favored course

Steve Stricker aims for his fourth John Deere Classic victory this week.
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SILVIS, Ill. (AP)

Steve Stricker might be the only golfer on the PGA Tour who isn't peeking ahead to Muirfield and next week's British Open.

Stricker's single-minded focus on TPC Deere Run, combined with his recent dominance of the course, makes him the man to beat at this weekend's John Deere Classic.

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Stricker, 46, is playing a reduced schedule this season — and he's skipping the British Open to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife Nicki in Wisconsin.

But Stricker won the John Deere Classic three times from 2009-11. He's not about to pass on a shot at a fourth title just down the road in Illinois.

''I owe a lot to this place. It's a special place for me,'' Stricker said.

Stricker and Zach Johnson, who grew up about 100 miles across the Mississippi River in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are the unquestioned headliners this week.

That's largely because most of the world's top golfers are already concentrating in Scotland.

There's no Tiger, Rory or Phil in this field. In fact, the only golfer ranked in the top 10 in the world that'll play Deere Run is Louis Oosthuizen — and he's 10th.

Just eight of the world's top 50, including Stricker, Keegan Bradley, Nick Watney and Johnson, have committed to the tournament. But what the field lacks in star power it should make up for somewhat in depth, as nearly half of the top 100 on FedEx Cup points list will tee off on Thursday.

''It doesn't matter where we're playing or what the field looks like. They're all good,'' said Johnson, who also serves as an executive board member for the tournament. ''If you don't know the names, you're going to know them at some point because they're all too good.''

Johnson broke Stricker's three-year winning streak here in 2012. But he enters his hometown event in a bit of a slump.

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Johnson followed up a third-place finish at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in late May by shooting 13 over par at the Memorial Tournament and missing the cut at the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

Johnson said that although his putting remains ''up and down'' — a worrisome sign because of how many birdie chances Deere Run presents — he's feeling more and more confident in his driver.

Johnson also notched top-five finishes at Deere Run in 2009 and 2011 before beating Troy Matteson on the second hole of a playoff last year.

''My golf game is in a much better form than it was at the beginning of the year. I've said it a couple of times and I hate to admit it, but my golf game was not where it needed to be early on in the year,'' Johnson said. ''That was just a process to kind of get where I am now.''

But not even Johnson can approach the run that Stricker has had at Deere Run.

Stricker's reduced schedule also appears to be doing wonders for his game in 2013.

Stricker has four top-10s in seven events, including a memorable eighth at the US Open.

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''My attitude is fresher,'' Stricker said. ''Just getting it right in my mind at the start of the year that this is what I wanted to do was a big step in my own mind, knowing that I am doing the right thing. And I feel good about what I'm doing. That helps me play the way I've been playing.''

Bradley will be making his John Deere Classic debut and is seeking his first win of the year. Watney will also be looking for a breakthrough after missing three straight cuts from mid-May to Merion.

Jonas Blixt initially said he intended to return to his native Sweden after winning last week's Greenbrier Classic. But Blixt remains scheduled to tee off Thursday with Watney and Oosthuizen.

Perhaps no one in the field will have more fun this weekend than Oosthuizen.

The South African is a self-described ''farm boy'' with an affinity for John Deere equipment. Oosthuizen celebrated his 2010 British Open by buying a John Deere tractor, and he even brought family and friends to the Quad Cities this week so they could tour the company's facilities.

''I've still got quite a bit of passion for golf. But John Deere and farming is not far off,'' Oosthuizen said.

Tagged: Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Nick Watney

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