- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

It was just more than a decade ago when Steve Stricker broke through at TPC at Avenel for his first PGA Tour victory, a triumph that created several possibilities for his career.

Now there is a sense of symmetry as Stricker returns to Avenel to play in the Booz Allen Classic starting today. The 39-year-old is coming off a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open, a result that all but assures him of his PGA Tour card next year after he had battled just to make events for the last three years.

In building a second-round lead at 1 under at Winged Foot, Stricker displayed the form that helped him win three times and earn a berth on the 1996 Presidents Cup team earlier in his career. That performance suggested he could win again on tour — and soon.

“The question with me always is how good can I get it into the fairway,” Stricker said. “I started doing that pretty well in the first couple of rounds and struggled a little bit on the weekend. I didn’t feel like a fish out of water there. When I got into contention, I was quite comfortable — nervous but comfortable.”

It was a refreshing feeling for Stricker, whose career dipped mightily after he won the 2001 Match Play Championship in Australia. That victory gave him a three-year exemption and allowed him to keep his card even after he finished 188th on the money list in 2003.

There was no such fail-safe the next season when he was 151st in earnings, just missing conditional status on tour. He then endured a rough 2005, placing 162nd on the money list before failing to make it through qualifying school in an attempt to regain his card.

“I can just remember when I got off to good starts before, it kind of takes the pressure off,” Stricker said. “I’ve been playing just the opposite the last few years. I’ve been playing with pressure every tournament just trying to make cuts, trying to get my game going in the right direction. When you miss cuts [and] your game’s not going well, it’s kind of a snowball effect.”

It prompted a winter of ceaselessly hitting balls, abundant time devoted simply to recapturing the success he once enjoyed. Stricker also wrote to every tournament sponsor on tour, trolling for opportunities to work toward recapturing his card.

The Wisconsin native thrived in his first event of the season, tying for 14th at Pebble Beach. He missed only one cut in his first six events and finished third at the Houston Open in April.

However, it was his effort at the Open that was equal parts reassuring and rewarding. Stricker again proved he could be one of the world’s top golfers, a jolt of confidence certain to carry into this week and the rest of the season.

It also earned him more than $183,000, boosting him to 59th on the money list at $735,118. The top 125 on the money list at season’s end earn tour cards, and he already is more than $100,000 clear of the total earned by No.125 last year.

“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me,” Stricker said. “I’ve always felt like I’m a player that belongs out here playing. The last couple years when I’ve had to fight for spots in the tournaments, it’s been a little discouraging to say the least.”

Stricker must battle for only spots for the rest of the season, and his finish at Winged Foot is sure to attract attention from tournaments later in the year. He will play both the Booz Allen and the Western Open as a past champion and has been assured a spot at both Quad Cities and Milwaukee should he need it.

The strong play provides Stricker the option of spending more time at home with his wife, Nicki, and their 11/2-month old daughter, the couple’s second child. Yet he’s also savoring his success, especially after struggling for so long.

“I do appreciate what I’ve done in these seven events a lot more than whatever I’ve done before,” Stricker said. “I’m looking forward to next year already. That hasn’t been the case the last few years.”

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