By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
KOHLER, Wis. -- The last time the PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits, Steve Stricker was watching on TV at his home about a two-hour drive away.
He had lost his PGA TOUR card the previous year, and the 2004 season wasn't shaping up much better. When the world's best gathered in his native Wisconsin, Stricker was perched precariously at No. 125 on the money list and he had missed the cut nine times in 19 starts.
"My game (was) not in any situation to be put on display," Stricker recalled wryly Wednesday.
Fast forward six years, though, and Stricker is one of the favorites as the PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits. In fact, the man who had sunk as low as 319th in the world in the interim now has a legitimate shot at supplanting Tiger Woods at No. 1.
Stricker would need a victory, of course, but he's already won twice more than Woods has this year. And if Stricker were to pick up that elusive first major on Sunday, Phil Mickelson would need to finish outside the top three and Woods outside the top 24 for him to take over the top spot in the world.
In a way, those hours Stricker spent in front of the television that August week six years ago might have helped him get to where he is today. He watched as Vijay Singh outlasted Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard in a playoff that Sunday. He took a good hard look at himself, too.
"It was difficult," Stricker said. "... It was kind of a shot in the arm too, showing that I needed to get better and needed to put some extra work in. But it was tough watching and not being a part of it."
This week, though, Stricker, a two-time PGA TOUR Comeback Player of the Year, is the toast of cheesehead country. He's heard the applause and words of encouragement as he and another native son, Jerry Kelly, played practice rounds together. He's left more than 50 tickets at Will Call.
And don't forget those bright green "Stricker's Soldiers" t-shirts that fans are wearing.
"I talked to a couple of the kids and signed a couple of the shirts, which is pretty cool," Stricker said. "Like I say, I don't get that at any other TOUR event ever, so it's pretty neat to see."
With that comes the pressure to perform, though. And no one has higher expectations than Stricker himself. At the same time, though, he understands he needs to let them go to succeed.
"To play well in front of the home fans and family and friends would be an unbelievable experience, but you can't try to do it," Stricker said. "You just got to go about your business and take each shot each day as it comes and try not to put that added extra pressure on (yourself) and hopefully I can do that.
"It's hard to do especially when you're playing in front of (them all) here, they're rooting hard for you, there's a lot of expectations, but you just got to take a step back and try to do the things you normally do."
And Stricker has been doing those things pretty darn well. He stands second in the FedExCup race and seventh on the PGA TOUR money list. Ranked fourth in the U.S. standings, he's a safe bet to make his second straight Ryder Cup team come Sunday, too.
"He's playing fabulous golf," U.S. Captain Corey Pavin said. "I think he's one of the best putters that we have and chippers, assuming he will make the team, which it looks like he will. Very solid player. ...
"And on top of that, I think he's a great guy, a super guy, as well as his wife. I certainly hope that he makes the team. I think everybody in this room would probably say he's somebody you would pick to be on the team at the beginning of the year."
In 2004, that certainly wasn't the case. But Stricker found the desire again, and that attitude change, coupled with a large dose of hard work on the range, produced a steady progression that saw Stricker return to the winner's circle in 2007 -- the first of six wins in the last three years.
"I think it was just a dedication again, trying to make it right in my mind first before getting to work," Stricker said. "... I had a poor attitude going. I didn't have a lot of confidence. And I tried to change those things first and along with my swing, so I had those couple of things, my mental approach and my physical game had to change."
Although Stricker says he thinks of Lee Westwood first, there are many who consider the soft-spoken 43-year-old the best player never to have won a major. To those who do, Stricker accepts what he calls an "honor" but he'd like nothing better than to hand it off to someone else after this week.
Prior to Tuesday, Stricker only played two extra practice rounds at Whistling Straits, a spectacular links-style layout carved from farmland by Lake Michigan. He's trying to treat this week just as he does any TOUR event, even though it's a major and it's so close to his house in Madison, Wis.
"When I drive here, it feels like home," Stricker said with a mischevious grin. "I'm staying about 25 minutes away, and all I see is corn, soybeans and cows.
"But when I get here it doesn't feel like home at all. When you look out over the course it looks like we're overseas somewhere playing in a British Open."
And speaking of St. Andrews, Stricker tied for 55th there last month. He made the cut in the other two majors this year but a tie for 30th at the Masters is his best finish.
A win in Wisconsin would be the ultimate fairy tale ending to a Cinderfella story that has had plenty of plot twists and turns. Stricker, whose best finish in a major was second at the 1998 PGA Championship, acknowledges the pressure but hopes his experience will provide the edge.
"There's no doubt about it it's, this is probably as wide open a major as we have seen in a long time," Stricker said. "And I still think though Tiger and Phil are going to be there come Sunday. ...
"But other than that I think there's a number of people that could win ... I think we all have that sense that if you can play well and get it going, then you have that great opportunity to win here."
And the fans of Wisconsin would be thrilled to see it happen.