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It wasn’t always that way.

Just when he was starting to hit his stride, Stricker looked around and started to wonder if he was good enough.

“I tried to compare myself to guys when I was playing well back in the mid-90s, and I got into some bad things,” he said.

One of those guys was Tiger Woods.

Stricker was regarded as one of the rising Americans in 1996, when he broke through by winning the Kemper Open and the Western Open and finished at No. 4 on the money list. A few months later, Woods turned pro and won twice in seven starts.

When he arrived at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am the following February, Stricker was at No. 13 in the world ranking. Woods was one spot behind at No. 14. Phil Mickelson was No. 7, the highest of American golfers in their 20s.

Stricker was paired with Woods for three rounds _ Stricker had sportscaster Bryant Gumbel as an amateur partner, Woods had actor Kevin Costner. Stricker didn’t make it to Sunday, tying for 66th. Woods was runner-up to Mark O’Meara.

Stricker left the Monterey Peninsula feeling inadequate.

“We were paired together at Pebble Beach, and I walked away from there feeling my game was not anywhere close to him. And it wasn’t,” Stricker said. “He’s probably done that to other players, too, don’t you think? I just didn’t think I had the skills or ability he had. But I’m OK with it now.”

That was the beginning of what once looked like the end.

Stricker traveled too much in the offseason after his banner year, going to South Africa and Scotland. He typically spends a long offseason home in Wisconsin, and when he returned to golf, it felt more like work than pleasure.

He also took advantage of his success by signing lucrative deals with equipment companies, which added to his troubles. And then came the pairing with Woods at Pebble Beach.

Stricker plunged to No. 130 on the money list that year, recovered briefly in 1998 when he had a back-nine duel with Vijay Singh at Sahalee in the PGA Championship, the big Fijian’s first major.

There also was a brief return in 2001 when Stricker, who was No. 90 in the world, got into the Match Play Championship in Australia because more than two dozen players ahead of him decided not to play. Stricker wound up winning, beating Ryder Cup players Padraig Harrington and Justin Leonard in the opening two rounds.

And then came the abyss that nearly ended his career, when he lost his PGA Tour card and only pulled himself out by hitting balls out of a three-sided trailer in Wisconsin to a driving range covered in snow.

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