Stricker gets by health scare, reaches the pinnacle again

2012 Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
KAPALUA, HI - JANUARY 9: Steve Stricker hits a drive on the 17th hole during the final round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua on January 9, 2012 in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
January 09, 2012
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Imagine that you're 44 years old, your left arm suddenly has no strength, and your livelihood depends on swinging a golf club.

It's a scary thought. Steve Stricker didn't know what was going on with his health last fall. All he knew was that his arm "didn't feel like it really wanted to move." There were no answers at that precise moment. Only questions -- about his career, about his future, about perhaps whether he would even compete on a world-class level again on the PGA TOUR.

Even after he found out that the problem was between the C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck, there was no consensus on the treatment. One well-known doctor in his home state of Wisconsin recommended surgery. Stricker then talked to others. He got more information to make a decision. He opted to hold off on surgery. Instead, he would undergo physical therapy and get a couple of cortisone shots.

Stricker feels great now. "I want to emphasize that," he said. And on Monday, he confirmed that the health of his game also is in excellent shape. His three-shot win at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions was a study in patience, experience and determination to start the 2012 season off on the proper note and win on a Plantation Course that has tempted him in past visits.

"I was comfortable today," Stricker said about the 12th win of his TOUR career that gives him 500 points and the early FedExCup lead. "That's what I was really proud of."

Monday certainly could've been a source of great discomfort for a lesser player. Just like the day before, Stricker's five-shot lead was reduced to one stroke on the front nine, as the trio of Martin Laird, Webb Simpson and defending champ Jonathan Byrd took turns putting heat on Stricker.

After Stricker failed to birdie the par-5 fifth when he three-putted from 33 feet, then he bogeyed the sixth when he struggled to get out of a "gnarly little area" in front of the green, the world's No. 6 player spent some time beating himself up.

But in walking to the seventh tee box, he told himself that things were still fine. He still had the lead, and the back nine of the Plantation Course has always been productive for him. He knew he could make his move then.

He didn't wait that long, though. He birdied the par-3 eighth -- a hole he double bogeyed the first day and bogeyed the third day -- then added a second birdie at the par-5 ninth. Suddenly, he was fine again. Things had settled down. It showed on the back nine -- he was a bogey-free coming in while his pursuers fell back.

"It doesn't matter if it's me or anybody else," Stricker said. "Always in the final round, it gets close at some point in time. It's just the nature of our game."

It's not the first time Stricker has let a big lead dwindle away and had to sweat out a win. It happened last year at TPC Deere Run and Muirfield Village. It's happened in other places. It'll probably happen again in the future.

But with his experience and steady demeanor, Stricker may be more equipped to handle such throat-squeezing conditions than most players. No player on TOUR has more wins since Stricker's seven since 2009, and the more he puts himself in these kinds of situations, the more he learns how best to handle them.

Interview: Steve Stricker

Stricker talks about the difficulty of winning the inaugural event of the year and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.

"I think you're able to lose your patience much more at a younger age," Stricker said, "and just kind of -- not give up, but just feel like it's not going to go your way. Believe me, I've felt like that at times. But you've just got to keep hanging in there.

"It's hard. It's a challenge. But it's worth it -- especially when it works out in the end."

His pursuers knew the task of catching Stricker was daunting. Said Laird: "He had to have a rough day -- which doesn't happen often."

So when they came up short, the disappointment was temporary at best. Stricker has played well at the Plantation Course in previous visits -- a playoff lost to Daniel Chopra in 2008, a tie for fourth last year when he entered the final round with a share of the lead. He was due here.

"The most underrated player in the world," Laird said. With Stricker entering this week ranked No. 6 in the world and moving to No. 5 with the win, that speaks volumes.

Stricker, of course, said volumes about his health this week. He looks fit. His swing looks good. And now he has his first TOUR win in the state of Hawaii.

Considering how Stricker felt a few months ago, his left arm in bad shape and the fear of the unknown creeping into his mind, the satisfaction of Monday's win was as deep as the blue ocean that frames the Plantation Course.