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Steve Stricker is more at ease on the course, and that's resulted in better play. (Getty Images)
Steve Stricker is more at ease on the course, and that's resulted in better play. (Getty Images)

Comeback kid Stricker again proves his major mettle

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After losing his PGA TOUR card and some of his desire in 2005, Steve Stricker was the Comeback Player of the Year in 2006. After a record-setting Saturday, he's within striking distance of Sergio Garcia and eagerly awaiting Sunday.

By Helen Ross, Chief of Correspondents

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- He wasn't one-more-bad-finish-away from quitting, or anything quite like that. Steve Stricker was having doubts about whether he still had the desire for the game, though.

His young family was growing. Stricker and his wife Nicki had a 7-year-old daughter and another one on the way. He missed them when he was on the road, and he wasn't playing that well when he was away, either.

"I really wasn't sure if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," admitted the man who nearly won the 1998 PGA Championship. "So things were kind of up in the air and a question for me."

The questions intensified when Stricker lost his PGA TOUR card after the 2005 season and didn't get it back at qualifying school. He rededicated himself to the game, though, and made the most of those sponsors' exemptions he had to solicit.

Stricker ended the 2006 season with seven top-10 finishes, including a tie for second at the Booz Allen Classic and solo third in Houston. The TOUR's Comeback Player of the Year has confidence -- and a sense of serenity -- that has carried over this year.

"It's not such a life-or-death situation, the game isn't anymore," Stricker explained. "I'm more at ease out there, I think, and I think that's resulted in some better play."

Stricker showed just what he could do on Saturday at the 136th Open Championship. The soft-spoken man from Wisconsin tied the Carnoustie course record with a 64 and joined Sergio Garcia in Sunday's final pairing as a result.

Stricker, who made seven birdies and no bogeys in the third round, trails the Spaniard by three strokes. He's ahead of his nearest competitors -- Chris DiMarco, Paul McGinley, Stewart Cink, Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els, K.J. Choi and Paul Broadhurst -- by the same margin.

"It was just one of those rounds where everything kind of went right, and my putter felt really well," Stricker said. "I've been spending a lot of time working on my putting. I gave myself a lot of opportunities today, and I ended up making quite a few putts, something that I haven't been doing as of late. Today they all seemed to go in.

"It was quite a day. It was quite an experience. It was a lot of fun, and it gives myself a chance going into tomorrow."

Stricker got things going with a trio of 3s to start as he rolled in birdie putts of 10, 25 and 40 feet on the first three holes. He added another from 20 feet at the fifth hole and a 3-footer at No. 7 to make the turn in a sizzling 31.

Stricker rode the momentum to the lucky 13th, where he made a 15-footer on the par 3. He reached the par-5 14th with a 3-iron and two-putted from 20 feet for his final birdie, then managed to save par -- and his round -- on the final four.

"I figured I needed a good round to get back into this tournament," Stricker said. "So that was my frame of thought going out. I just tried not to get in my way as things got going well. I tried to continue to be aggressive. I tried to give myself opportunities, and I did, all the way up through 14. So that was the good part.

"Those last four holes are not easy. I hit a decent drive on 15 and the wind caught it and moved it into the bunker. No. 16 is no bargain; you're hitting a 3-wood to maybe a 15-yard-wide area. So anytime you can make pars on those last four holes, no matter how you do it, it's very rewarding and very good. I just tried to continue what was going on and not get in my own way."

Stricker said he wasn't aware of the course record and he had no idea he had tied Allen Tait and Colin Montgomerie for it until he finished. Not that it mattered, anyway.

"Course records are nice and all, but the real deal is the tournament and that's why we're here," Stricker explained. "I saw that I was still a couple of shots behind Sergio at the time, so I was trying to get as close to him as I can. Like I say, that was my main goal."

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Mission accomplished. Now, Stricker needs to get show that he's learned how to win again. The last of his three TOUR victories came at the 2001 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship down in Australia.

He's come close twice this year -- finishing second at the Wachovia Championship and the AT&T National. He contended at the U.S. Open until double bogeys on Oakmont's 10th and 11th holes dropped Stricker back into the pack.

Those close-but-no-cigar finishes could be a double whammy for some. Stricker, though, prefers to dwell on the positives. He played three tough courses -- Quail Hollow, Congressional and Oakmont -- extremely well, even though he didn't finish quite like he had hoped.

"I've just got to keep moving forward," Stricker said. "I take all of this as a positive. I'm not beating myself up saying that I didn't win any of these tournaments, but I've given myself some opportunities this year, and hopefully one of these times it's going to pay off."

Stricker likes the challenge of major championships, as his record shows. He's finished in the top-10 six times, including twice last year. He values par and he likes the way the majors make you focus on the task at hand.

"Every hole is a new hole, and you need to first of all get it in the fairway," Stricker said. "And when you don't, sometimes at these majors making a par is even more rewarding than making a birdie. That's what I really enjoy about them is just the toughness of them. ...

"I'm very anxious and excited for tomorrow. You just can't think about that, though. I've gone down that road in the past where you're out there playing and you start thinking about winning and you just can't do it. You've got to just concentrate with the job at hand and continue to be aggressive or play smart and move forward. Hopefully, you just kind of worry about all that at the end."

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