- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — On a day defined by the favorite’s flameout, it’s only fitting a pair of long shots found their way to the top of the U.S. Open’s midpoint leader board.

While world No. 1 Tiger Woods was busy bowing out early at a major for the first time since the 1996 Masters, renaissance men Steve Stricker (1-under 139) and Colin Montgomerie (140) quietly crept into weekend pole position at merciless Winged Foot.

Stricker, the 1996 Kemper Open champion perhaps best known for his near-miss loss to Vijay Singh in the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee, was the first of the pair to reach the clubhouse comfy chair. Playing in the morning before the greens on the 7,264-yard, par-70 layout turned to spiked-up tarmac, Stricker split virtually every fairway and then holed a bunker shot at his final hole to turn a likely bogey into a Houdini 69.

Stricker’s solid performance comes in the midst of a comeback season in which he doesn’t even have his PGA Tour card. A solid tour regular through 2001, when he collected the last of his three titles at the World Match Play Championship, the 39-year-old Wisconsin native began to lose his game in 2002 and then completely lapsed into oblivion over the last three seasons.

“There were no physical injuries, but mental injuries there might have been,” Stricker said as a joke when asked what happened to his game after 2002. “I was obviously struggling with confidence and everything that goes with when you’re not playing well. I put in a lot of time this winter. I worked hard at it.

“I can’t play up in Wisconsin, but I was still able to hit a lot of balls. I continued doing that and working out a lot through January and February, and the tournaments I’ve gotten into this year, I’ve played well. I’ve just been kind of building a little momentum each and every week that I play.”

Playing only via sponsor’s exemptions or in third-tier events with forgettable fields this season, Stricker had forged an impressive turnaround in only six starts entering this week’s event, recording five top-30 finishes and a sole third in the Houston Open. And after playing his way into the Open through sectional qualifying last Monday, that momentum has obviously continued building this week at Winged Foot.

The 42-year-old Monty has made a similar recovery over the last year. Once the crowned prince of the European Tour, Monty captured a record seven consecutive money titles as the leader of the European Order of Merit from 1993 to 1999. But the combination of unfulfilled promise in golf’s Grand Slams and marital problems conspired to sap his passion for the game from 2002 to 2004, and Monty uncharacteristically missed the cut in a skein of majors and dropped out of the top 100 in the world rankings.

With his painfully public divorce finalized last year, he rediscovered his form and bolted to an eighth Order of Merit title, largely on the strength of an outstanding runner-up effort to Woods at the British Open at St. Andrews. He recorded his record eighth money title in 2005. Now Monty is once again in the weekend mix at the major most suited to his striking accuracy off the tee; the major he flirted with so often in his prime, recording two seconds (1994 and 1997) and a third (1992).

And though threepeat-hungry Phil Mickelson (143) and 2003 Open champion Jim Furyk (142) are lurking just beneath him on the board, few feel-good stories this week would rival a long-awaited major breakthrough for Monty. Even the American galleries who tormented the rabbit-eared Scot so incessantly in his prime seem to understand the potential last-chance nature of his bid, embracing and even buoying Monty around the property thus far this week.

“Yeah, the New York crowd’s are different. I can’t believe how people can shout that loud,” said Montgomerie, who carded a vintage fairways-and-greens round of 17 pars against a lone bogey (No. 14) yesterday afternoon. “It’s not the birdies that you make on these types of courses, it’s the mistakes that you don’t make. I only made one today, and that’s good, very good.

“We’re halfway there now. It’s about time we talked about winning. Of course, yeah, I have a chance, okay? But that’s all it is. If I can hang in there and give myself a chance on Sunday, one never knows.

Woods (152) is one of a good many high-profile names who won’t have that chance after missing the Open’s midpoint cut at 9-over (149), the highest at an Open since 1986 (10-over at Shinnecock Hills). A bevy of notables including Sergio Garcia (156), defending champion Michael Campbell (152) and two-time champion Retief Goosen (155) are headed home.

“Marginal shots are just going to get killed here. It’s just the nature of this golf course,” said Woods after his streak of 39 consecutive made cuts at majors was snapped courtesy of the combination of miserable driving accuracy (seven of 28 fairways) and atrocious putting (63 putts). “I didn’t drive the ball all that great. I didn’t hit my irons well. And I didn’t have the speed [of the greens] again. So, not a good combo … Unfortunately, I missed [the cut] in this one, but hopefully I can win the British Open.”

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