Stricker gradually gaining confidence in return
He's playing the Zurich Classic four months after back surgery
April 22, 2015
By Brian Allee-Walsh, Special to PGATOUR.COM
- Steve Stricker, 48, finished T28 at the Masters. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
AVONDALE, La. -- Steve Stricker is here, he's just not there yet. But he hopes to be very soon.
Four months removed from surgery to fix a bulging disk in his aching back, Stricker has set relatively modest goals for himself on the PGA TOUR, beginning with one pain-free round at a time.
So far, so good.
The number stands at four after a T28 finish two weeks ago at the Masters heading into Thursday's opening round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana.
He hopes to extend his TOUR-best consecutive cut streak to 37 over a 7,425-yard Pete Dye layout made longer by recent daily rains.
For now, 'W' stands for weekend.
Steve Stricker comments before the Zurich Classic
"No matter what tournament I go to, I want to be prepared and to play well, and this is no different,'' Stricker said. "Even though it's only my second event, I have high expectations of what I can do and what I should do.
"So I come here thinking that I can play well, but deep down I know it's a process and I've got some work to do.''
A 12-time winner on TOUR and twice named the Comeback Player of the Year, the 48-year-old Stricker is no stranger to success or adversity. Though limited to 11 events last season because of recurring back pain, he still pocketed $1,154,747 and posted a T7 at the PGA Championship and a T11 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
He is coming off a final-round 68 at Augusta National and feeling good about his recent performances in New Orleans where he has finished sixth (2012), T13 (2011) and T7 (2009) in his last three starts. How all that translates to this week remains to be seen.
Stricker tees it up at 8:40 a.m. ET on Thursday with two of the early favorites -- Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler. Other contenders in a tournament that seems to produce first-time TOUR winners include Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, 2013 Zurich champion and reigning FedExCup champion Billy Horschel, Harris English, John Peterson, Justin Thomas and defending champion Seung-Yul Noh, among others.
"Steve wasn't going to come back until he's ready,'' said Jerry Kelly, a longtime friend who counts the 2009 Zurich Classic of New Orleans among his three wins on TOUR. "He's not playing here unless he feels like he can compete. He's not just going to show up to get his game in order. He does that at home. When he thinks his game is in order to win, then he comes out to play like he did when he came out to play the Masters.''
Stricker last won in 2012 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the same year he missed the cut at THE PLAYERS Championship, his last early exit on TOUR. Thirty-six made cuts and three years later, Stricker is determined to make a run at next year's Ryder Cup team before turning 50 and splitting time between the PGA TOUR and Champions Tour.
"I've got eligibility (on TOUR) through my 51st year or 52nd year,'' Stricker said. "So I'll have some dual membership on each tour. I don't know what I'm going to do at this point. Whether I see how I'm playing out here or maybe focus full-time out on the Champions Tour.
"Whatever it's going to be, it's probably going to be in the 12-to-15 event range.''
At the moment, Stricker stands 74th in the world ranking, a drop of 33 spots since the end of 2014 because of his inactivity. He plans to take it one week at a time on TOUR for the foreseeable future, though the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits (Aug. 13-16) in his home state of Wisconsin is squarely in his sights.
"Right now, I have really the best of both worlds -- I enjoy my time at home and I'm excited to play when I come to an event,'' Stricker said. "I'm pretty relaxed and casual with things. But when it comes down to it, I really still want to win again and play well and maybe make another team event before all is said and done.''
And Kelly said Stricker is far from being done.
"Steve doesn't care about age,'' said Kelly, who also is 48. "He knows he can still compete. It's just feeling healthy and feeling confident that you can go ahead and swing without having something hurt. That's what he's fighting. It's not with Father Time; it's not 'can I come back?' It's 'can I get healthy?'''
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