Stricker has become unlikely challenger to Tiger

Steve Stricker, who’s more Clark Kent than Superman, seemed amused at talk that he’s emerging as the long-sought rival to Tiger Woods.

“I don’t know if I’m a rival to him or not,” the easygoing Stricker said Wednesday ahead of the BMW Championship at Cog Hill. “I’ve been playing well, and that’s all I try to do.”

If a career of ups and downs has taught anything to a 42-year-old who was a reclamation project after having lost his Tour card just four years ago, it’s that golf has a way of humbling those who think they’ve got it licked.

Or licked enough to think they can stand toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods over an extended period of time.

But it might just be Stricker’s acceptance of what he can and cannot do on a golf course that could provide Woods with his sternest challenge.

Stricker knows his limitations — he doesn’t hit it far but has taught himself to hit it straight — but he also knows he’s deadly with a putter from 20 feet, a gift which more than makes up for any deficiencies he may have in golf swing aesthetics.

The likeable Wisconsinite leads the FedEx Cup points race after two playoff events and is assured of being no lower than second — no matter what he does this week — going into the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake in two weeks.

Woods is second in the standings and would need to finish close to last at Cog Hill — a course he’s won at four times before — in order to fall out of the top five when the points are reset before the Tour Championship. Any player in the top five who wins at East Lake can take the third FedEx Cup and claim the $10 million prize money.

“I think Stricker is in an ideal position,” said Padraig Harrington, who himself went through this same rival-in-the-making dance with Woods just a month ago.

“What’s great about Steve Stricker is he’s trying to be Steve Stricker.

“He’s going to try and beat Tiger Woods by playing Steve Stricker’s golf. He’s not going to go out there and try and play Tiger’s game, and that’s very important to distinguish those two things.

“He doesn’t try to do anything that he can’t do. He plays well within himself, and when you add those numbers up at the end of the week, it’s very impressive, and that’s the only way any player can compete with Tiger.

“The best way of beating him is doing your own thing and making Tiger perform better. And if he does, you’ll say, ‘Well done.’

“But the key is not to have a situation where you’ve played (poorly) and Tiger can get away with not playing his very best and still win.”

Stricker, whose two late birdies gave him the biggest win of his career, the Deutsche Bank Championship on Monday outside of Boston, will again be paired with Woods in Thursday’s opening round.

“What’s great about Steve Stricker is he’s trying to be Steve Stricker.

He’s going to try and beat Tiger Woods by playing Steve Stricker’s golf.”

&#151 Padraig Harrington

He’s not intimidated by the prospect, in part because he and Woods are friends.

“We have a good time going out there and playing, so I’m looking forward to it,” said Stricker.

“Being a friend to him and enjoying being out there with him, I think, has helped me play better with him.”

But he echoed Harrington’s observation that those who play alongside Woods shouldn’t be sucked into trying to do what he does.

“I don’t look at me competing against him out there,” said Stricker.

“I’ve gotten away from that, and I think that’s why I’m playing a little bit better when I do play with him because I just don’t try to compare anything to what he’s doing.

“I just try to go about my own business.”

Woods, for his part, is also a fan of Stricker’s.

“He’s just a great guy, period,” Woods said Wednesday, “Strick, before he had his success, his game slipped away and then he came back (but) he hasn’t changed. He’s still the same Steve. From the time I came out here on Tour until now, he hasn’t changed one bit. He’s just a great guy overall.”

Still, Stricker is smart enough to understand that Woods can’t be underestimated because he’s failed to win either of the first two playoff events.

“I’ve played with him the last couple weeks, and he hasn’t played his best,” he said.

“But he’s still in there all the time, and you know he’s very dangerous and he can be back into the tournament in a heartbeat.”

If the two are still paired on Sunday afternoon with the tournament on the line, Stricker is likely to discover what Sean O’Hair — another friend of Woods — found out at Bay Hill in May, when Woods spotted him a five-shot Sunday lead and gunned him down.

“No matter how friendly you are with him,” said O’Hair, “He wants to slit your throat on the golf course.”