- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

ATLANTA — It’s not very difficult to find the FedEx Cup’s feel-good story.

Two years ago, Steve Stricker was on the verge of quitting the game. Now, the 40-year-old Wisconsin native is just one weekend away from pulling off one of the more startling coups in recent PGA Tour history.

Stricker enters this week’s Tour Championship sandwiched between the World’s top two players (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson) in the FedEx Cup points standings That’s a pretty heady position for a guy who posted just two top-10 finishes in 69 starts from 2003 to 2005 while dreading every swing with the driver.

“I did a lot of soul-searching,” Stricker said of his three-year slump. “When I was honest with myself, I realized I wanted to be home with my family, not playing golf. I was just going through the motions out here, and that won’t cut it. I considered doing something else, but I’ve never done anything but play golf. It basically came down to my wife telling me to stop moping, and me rededicating myself to making the most out of every moment I was away from home.”

Local golf fans will remember that Stricker’s wife, Nicki, caddied for him during his first PGA Tour victory at the 1996 Kemper Open. The daughter of Stricker’s golf coach at Illinois, Nicki has never put up with much nonsense. She’s a fighter, and a true anomaly among the tour’s array of preening, perma-smiling spouses.

As evidence, consider Stricker’s first foray into the major spotlight at the 1998 PGA Championship. By 1998, Nicki had given up her caddie duties to become a mother, and the couple’s first child just happened to be due the same week that Stricker and Vijay Singh played to a 54-hole deadlock atop the leader board at Sahalee. A year later, Mickelson famously wore a beeper in a similar situation at the U.S. Open, vowing to immediately exit Pinehurst, regardless of his standing, should nature and his wife Amy call.

But Steve had no such beeper in Seattle. In fact, pregnant Nicki delivered a clear message on that subject during a CBS interview just before the start of Steve’s dual with Singh.

“He knows I’m just fine,” she said. “And I told him if he comes home, I’d kill him.”

Spurred on by Nicki once again after his three-year drought, Stricker determined to turn his game around after the 2005 season, shortening his traditionally long swing to increase his control off the tee. Playing largely on sponsor’s exemptions and top-10 restarts (players finishing in the top 10 of a PGA Tour event automatically earn a spot in the next week’s field), Stricker became the tour’s comeback player of the year last season, posting seven top-10 finishes in just 17 starts to finish 34th on the money list and secure his card for this season.

Buoyed by that success and no longer forced to beg his way into events, Stricker then exploded this season. Turning an already impressive career comeback into an absolute renaissance, Stricker has posted nine top-10s this season, notched his first victory since 2001 at the Barclays and surged to No. 5 in the world rankings courtesy of the best golf this side of Tiger Woods over the last four months.

“It’s been a great ride. It seems so surreal at times,” said Stricker, who has five top-10 finishes in his last seven starts, including three straight in the first three weeks of the FedEx Cup playoffs (Win, tie for ninth, third). “I look back and think how far I’ve come in a couple-year period. … I keep pinching myself, I really do.”

On an elite PGA Tour landscape dominated by 300-yard bombers and inhumanly brilliant short games, Stricker is the closest thing golf’s top tier has to an ordinary Joe. He ranks 140th on tour in driving distance at 283.5 yards and still misses more than his share of fairways, ranking 77th in driving accuracy. He is exceptionally gifted on the greens, where he ranks fourth on tour in putting at 1.741 per green in regulation. But pitted against stratospheric talents like Tiger and Phil, Stricker is clearly the FedEx Cup’s blue-collar contender.

Stricker this weekend will attempt to topple the game’s two titans in Atlanta. For Woods and Mickelson, winning the first FedEx Cup would simply represent another checkmark on the resume. For Stricker, it would represent a dream accomplishment. Nobody expects this coach-class kid to take down golf’s Gulfstream II duo, least of all Stricker. But with Woods and Mickelson complaining about the deferred FedEx purse (a $10 million annuity) and the schedule rigors of the format, wouldn’t it be fun to see Cinderella steal the show?

“I’m not the guy who should win this thing, so that kind of takes some of the pressure off me. But I’m really ready to go,” said Stricker, who was 1-over through 11 holes in yesterday’s weather-delayed first round. “I liken it to the opening of deer season, which is [tomorrow]. That’s how excited I am. That’s how I feel about it, and I get pretty fired up to go deer hunting.”

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