Golf

Stricker isn't intimidated as he chases down Tiger

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Most players on the PGA Tour probably would tell you that commissioner Tim Finchem does not quite have this FedEx Cup thing figured out yet. Not Steve Stricker. Under any format, the playoffs seem to be made for Stricker, and Stricker seems to be made for the playoffs as they head to a climax for the third time next week in the Tour Championship. "I don't know, I mean, it's the playoffs, I guess," Stricker quipped to reporters recently, mimicking those tongue-in-cheek television spots that hype golf's postseason. Whatever the reason, until last week, Strick had been the best player overall since the PGA Tour playoffs made their debut two years ago. Worn down after winning the Deutsche Bank Championship a few days earlier, he stumbled to a tie for 54th in the BMW Championship. Tiger Woods ran away with the tournament, winning by eight strokes, and regained the lead in the FedEx Cup standings. But Stricker is second and heading to the Tour Championship next week after a week off to recharge his batteries. Stricker has played in all 11 playoff events, winning two among six top-10 finishes, and until last week, he had wound up no worse than a tie for 24th in the Tour Championship a year ago. Two years ago, he captured the first playoff event, the Barclays, and posted two more top-10 finishes before he came in 17th at the Tour Championship and finished second to Woods in the final FedEx Cup standings. Last year, when Woods was on the sidelines following knee surgery and Vijay Singh claimed the FedEx Cup title, Stricker posted three top-20 finishes before tying for 24th in the season finale at Atlanta to end up 14th in the standings. And this year, he took the lead from Woods in the standings by tying for second in the Barclays and winning the Deutsche Bank. "Obviously, you want to be playing well at this time, (and) fortunately I have been," said Stricker, who actually has been doing that all season, with three victories and 10 finishes in the top 10. "There's a lot of incentive there for us at the end of it all. "Maybe the courses just suit my game. ... I don't know what it is — if I reach another level of focus or whatever — but I feel comfortable with my game the last three years since these playoffs have started. I'm sure that has a lot to do with it.
"So it's just, you know, I'm riding it out. It's been good, and I just wake up and try to do the same things every day." Since Woods began his domination of the game, there has been an ongoing search for worthy challengers. With more likely candidates such as Singh, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia lagging at this time, the unlikely Stricker has stepped up. Not only is he second in the FedEx Cup standings and on the PGA money list with $6,062,636 this season, he has risen to No. 2 in the World Golf Rankings, a career high. Said Scott Verplank: "He's not Tiger, but you know what? He may be the second-best player, at least on this tour." Early last year, Stricker lost in a playoff at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship and tied for fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii on the heels of his strong run in the playoffs at the end of the previous season. Those five top-10 finishes in six tournaments pushed him to No. 3 in the world rankings behind Woods and Mickelson, causing some skeptics in the media to suggest the system was flawed. Now, even they know Stricker is no fluke. "As far as the world ranking goes, that's just something that's a bonus, I guess, for playing well," said the unassuming Stricker, who has a well-deserved reputation of being perhaps the nicest guy on the PGA Tour. "You know, it's a nice honor to be up there. But that's all I really look at for that. I mean, good play takes care of a lot of things, and that's what I'm focused on is just to play good." Stricker has done some of his best work in the playoffs this year alongside Woods, since the points leaders are matched up in the early rounds. He also didn't flinch at the beginning of the final round while holding the lead in the Deutsche Bank, when the No. 1 player was lighting up the scoreboard and igniting roars that could be heard all over the course during an 8-under-par 63. Strick is not overwhelmed by it, as some players obviously are. "I am comfortable playing with him," said Stricker, who posted his own 63 while going eyeball-to-eyeball with Woods in Round 1 at the TPC of Boston. "I've gotten over that. I mean, he does some incredible things. "I guess I'm to the point where I'm comfortable with what I'm doing, and I'm really not worrying about him. He's going to hit those great shots, and he's going to make those great putts. I can't do anything about that. "You know, we're friends, we have a good time out there, and that's the way I look at it. I just enjoy being out there with him." That has led to some speculation that captain Fred Couples might have a viable alternative to Jim Furyk as a partner for Woods in the Presidents Cup next month at Harding Park. Stricker would be all for it. "I think it would work great; I think I could ride him all the way," Stricker joked with reporters. "I think it would be a lot of fun. We've talked about it. It would be up to Freddie to see if he'll put us together or not, but I think we'd have a lot of fun." He's having a lot of fun right now, but while he's enjoying it, Stricker has had enough ups and downs in his career to keep his cleats planted firmly on the grass. Especially when it comes to Tiger talk. "He's the man," Stricker said. "We're just taking up space in his world." But he's one guy who isn't afraid to be there.

Notes and quotes

  • Paul Casey's PGA Tour season ended when he was forced to withdraw from the BMW Championship because of a lingering rib injury, the fifth consecutive event he has missed because of the problem. Casey, who captured the Shell Houston Open earlier this season for his first victory on the PGA Tour, was 16th in the regular-season FedEx Cup rankings but has slipped to 52nd and will not be able to play in the Tour Championship next week even if he is healthy because he is not in the top 30. Last week, the Englishman was ready to play in the Deutsche Bank Championship even though he still had some discomfort in the rib cage area, but he changed his mind on the advice of his doctor. Casey, who was ranked third in the World Golf Rankings at the time, suffered the injury while practicing before the Open Championship in July at Turnberry, where he tied for 47th in the last tournament he completed. Three weeks later, he withdrew during the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after suffering a recurrence of the injury, then was unable to make it to the post for the PGA Championship and the first event of the PGA Tour playoffs, the Barclays. Casey, whose injury has been diagnosed as a torn oblique muscle near the 10th rib and a strained intercostal muscle, has been receiving treatment and received a cortisone shot at home in Arizona. At this point, he is hoping to be able to play in the final events of the European PGA Tour season, leading to the season-ending Dubai World Championship near the end of November. Casey ranks second in the Race to Dubai standings behind Martin Kaymer of Germany, who also is on the sidelines because of a broken foot suffered in a go-cart accident.
  • Lorena Ochoa, No. 1 in the Women's World Golf Rankings, is a national hero in Mexico, adored by fans and the media. However, Ochoa was greeted by some tough questions about what — for her — has been a subpar season, when she was in Mexico City last week to promote a charity event. "I'm not going to answer any question about my results," Ochoa said defensively when asked about it. "I think I've said that I feel good, and I'm feeling positive. "(The Canadian Open, where she finished 10th in her last tournament) was a good week, and I'm looking forward to winning the tournaments that remain and finishing the season satisfied." Ochoa has won twice this season in 15 starts on the LPGA Tour, but her lead in the rankings over Suzann Pettersen of Norway and Yani Tseng of Taiwan has dwindled. Not only that, her finishes in the majors have been disappointing. She finished in a tie for 12th in defense of her title at the Kraft Nabisco, a tie for 28th in the Women's British Open, a tie for 40th in the Evian Masters and a tie for 26th in the U.S. Women's Open. "The results, the statistics still say I have the No. 1 ranking," a clearly agitated Ochoa said when pressed further. "Perhaps, right now I'm not playing like the No. 1. It's fair to say I have not won in the last weeks. They say one learns more from mistakes. "I'm going to repeat, and I've said this many times and I want it to be clear, I'm not blaming anybody else or anything. I'm in a phase in which I am traveling more and playing less. I'm coming more to Mexico. I have a lot of obligations off the golf course. "That's life in sports. I'm relaxed, satisfied. You can't always be on top. There are always ups and downs in the career of an athlete. This is not the best time for me, but it's nothing out of control." This has been a season of change for Ochoa, who has switched caddies, gone to a different putter and altered her grip.
  • Steve Blass, former World Series hero for the Pittsburgh Pirates, made two holes-in-one in a span of 11 holes last week during the team's annual alumni golf tournament at Greensburg Country Club in Greensburg, Pa. The 67-year-old Blass connected with an 8-iron from 154 yards on the 15th hole after his fivesome started on No. 10, then holed his tee shot with a 7-iron on the 175-yard seventh hole. "The first one we all went berserk," Blass told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The second one, I took off my glasses and started rolling down the hill like a little kid. I looked like a big, fat bear rolling down the hill." Blass had one hole-in-one previously, in 1996, on a course in Florida that no longer exists. Both aces during the Pirates' tournament came with a prize, so Blass received a new computer and a $500 gift card, although he later claimed he left the course with a net loss. "I've never even used a computer," said Blass, who pitched two complete-game victories in the 1971 World Series, including a four-hitter to beat Baltimore, 2-1, in the seventh game. "And it cost me $400 (to buy the traditional drinks) in the bar. ... When I was driving home, I was still so numb, still shaking. "It was like after the World Series. I was too thrilled to get drunk." Golf Digest estimates the odds against a golfer having two holes-in-one in the same round at 67 million-to-1.
  • John Daly was scheduled to play in five more tournaments this year, but he announced last week that he is shutting it down for 2009 to allow a recurring rib injury to heal. Daly was scheduled to play this week in the Austrian Open on the European Tour, in the Turning Stone Resort Championship and the Viking Classic during the PGA Tour's Fall Series and in the Australian Open and the Australian PGA in December. "He doesn't feel he's given the injury a chance to completely mend," said Bud Martin, Daly's agent. "So he told me ... he's not playing the rest of the year." Daly has said the injury was caused when he stopped in mid-swing after he heard the sound of a fan's camera clicking while he was taking a shot in the 2007 Honda Classic. The injury might require surgery. The two-time major champion was particularly disappointed that he will not be able to make the trip to Australia, where he is immensely popular. "I was really looking forward to getting back there this year," Daly said in a statement. "I really regret any inconvenience this unavoidable situation may have caused for the Australian PGA and Australian Open organizers, but I will look forward to returning back there next year." Even though Daly missed the cut in three consecutive events in Australia late last year and has been involved in two controversial events Down Under, his popularity there has not waned. Tournament officials for the Australian PGA and the Australian Open have been using Daly's name alongside those of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh as part of their promotion of this year's tournaments. "We are obviously very disappointed that John can't make it back here for our events this summer, as he was certainly a hit with the fans when he was here last year," said Max Garske, chief executive of the PGA of Australia. Daly got into hot water with Australian officials when he hurled his putter and ball into a lake after making a triple-bogey 7 on a hole in 2002. There was more trouble last year when he took a fan's camera and smashed it against a tree.
  • Geoff Ogilvy got an escorted tour of the renovated Dubsdread Course at Cog Hill before the BMW Championship last week from Rees Jones, who was responsible for the renovation work. Ogilvy and Jones were paired during the pro-am on Wednesday. "I didn't want to get too deep," Ogilvy said of their discussion about the changes. "It's not my domain to get into golf course architecture. It was nothing too deep, just, 'What did you do here?' and that sort of thing." What Ogilvy didn't tell Jones was that he was posting on Twitter during the round and had asked if any of the readers had questions for the noted course designer. He got plenty of responses. "I got bunches and bunches of questions; I answered a few," Ogilvy told reporters. "I didn't really fess up until later on that I was actually doing it. He got suspicious and said I was asking too many hard questions." Jones apparently never caught on, because when told by a reporter what Ogilvy had been doing during the round, he said with a smile, "That's why he was asking so many questions." Despite his reputation as the "Open Doctor" because he's known for doctoring up courses to make them worthy — read: difficult enough — to host U.S. Opens, Jones is not necessarily a favorite among the pros. Ogilvy was guarded in his analysis. "Similar to most," Ogilvy said of the Dubsdread renovation. "I don't know how you answer that, without ... I don't want to answer. Bethpage is obviously his best. From what I hear about what that was like before he got there, it was a horror show. Now it's really, really good. "This is somewhere in the middle. I don't dislike it. I think there is a lot of stuff that's improved. I don't know if I like this one better than the old one, but it's not like this one looks bad." Jones' other noted redesigns include Congressional, Hazeltine, Torrey Pines, Bellerive and Medinah. Even though Ogilvy said he enjoyed the day and called Jones "a very nice man," he added, "If I was going to talk about architecture, I would prefer to play with Ben Crenshaw."
  • Tagged: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Scott Verplank, John Daly, Fred Couples

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