- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

Golf isn’t the most forgiving of sports. Blow a chance to win a tournament, and you’re not likely to get another - not at that particular tour stop, anyway.

Scott Simpson missed a three-footer on the 72nd hole at Congressional in 1983, trudged off to a five-man playoff and never did capture the Kemper Open - that year or any other year. The same goes for Larry Mize (‘88), Jeff Sluman (‘91), John Daly (‘92), Mark Wiebe (‘97), J.J. Henry (‘01) and any number of others who sniffed victory in Our Local Event but didn’t come away with the trophy. Usually - that is, unless you’re supremely gifted - you only get one opportunity at these things.

So Steve Stricker is blessed indeed to find himself in second place Sunday morning in the AT&T; National, just a stroke behind leader Tom Pernice at 9 under par. After all, last year he was a stroke up on the field with five holes to go and couldn’t hold it together, ended up playing the bridesmaid to K.J. Choi. It was a painful experience at the time, because Stricker hadn’t won on the tour since the 2001 Match Play and, in his darkest moments, was probably wondering if he ever would again.

He did, of course - last August in the Barclays, the first leg of the FedEx Cup competition. In the months since, he has done a nice job, at the age of 41, of resurrecting a career that was heading due south from 2003 to ‘05. Put it this way: Three years ago, Stricker finished 162nd on the money list; two days ago, he was standing on a balcony at the White House watching the Fourth of July fireworks. How’s that for a turnaround?

Oh, and did I mention he sat next to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a spell and talked golf and post-administration plans?

Such are the mysteries of his sport, as Stricker knows only too well. For all his name recognition, he has won only four times, he’s quick to point out, in 15 years on the PGA Tour. Which is why, he says, he’ll “be fighting nerves and everything [this morning], just like everybody else.” Trying to close out a tournament “is still a challenge” for him. “It’s still very difficult to do. … Guys who win a lot, they’re familiar with this position. I’ve been close in the last few years, but still I’ve won just once since 2001.”

Clearly, though, Stricker is comfortable here, comes to Washington with “good feelings and good vibes,” as he puts it. Part of it is that D.C. has become his own personal ATM in recent years. He won his first tour event at Avenel in ‘96, tied for second there in ‘06 and was runner-up again last year in the inaugural AT&T.;

Another part of it is that, when he was growing up, his family would visit an uncle in the Washington area and Stricker grew to like the place. Attending the ‘76 PGA Championship at Congressional as a 9-year-old was one of the highlights of his youth.

“I just enjoy coming here,” he said after putting out on 18 Saturday for a 66. “When you enjoy coming to places, it makes it a little easier going there, and maybe that reflects in the way I play.”

Stricker has lots of company atop the leader board. There’s Pernice at 10 under, Nick O’Hern, Tommy Armour III and Jeff Overton at 8 under and three more players at 7 under, including young, dangerous Anthony Kim. Inasmuch as the course has played easier because of the rain-softened greens, “you’re going to have to play well [to win],” he predicted. “There’s going to be some guys coming from behind probably with some low scores, and you’re going to have to shoot a good, solid round.”

A round that figures to hinge, as final rounds often do, on the final few holes. Stricker, you might be surprised to learn, considers Congressional’s closing holes to be less scary than those at Avenel, where the watery par-3 17th is bracketed by a pair of challenging par-4s.

The last three holes at Congressional, in his opinion, give players “the opportunity to make some birdies coming down the stretch - if you can drive it in the fairway,” Stricker said. “[No.] 16 is a par-5 birdie hole, and 17 is a short-ish par 4. And 18, too, is playing fairly short. You know, if you’ve got the guts to take aim at the pin on 18, you’re going to have an opportunity for birdie. But there are some penalties there [as well].”

Ah, yes, penalties. Tom Lehman could tell you about those. His U.S. Open hopes drowned on that hole in 1997 (when it played as the 17th instead of the 18th).

Still, if Stricker reaches 18 Sunday with an opportunity to show how much “guts” he’s got, well, how much more can a golfer ask for? He at least will have gotten a chance to make amends for the AT&T; That Got Away - in the town that has become his home away from home.



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