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Steve Stricker already has earned a career-high $2.5 million this year. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR/WireImage)
Steve Stricker already has earned a career-high $2.5 million this year. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR/WireImage)

From out of the cold, Stricker re-emerges as a threat

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Steve Stricker almost won the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee, then descended into years of struggle. After a long winter of work in his native Wisconsin, though, he's rediscovered his form, and ranks among the favorites in Tulsa.

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- The snow was a foot deep, the temperature in the teens, frost in the air with every breath. Steve Stricker lives for winter days like these in Wisconsin, where he usually can be found in the woods with a bow in hand while hunting deer.

But these were not ordinary times.

It was the end of 2005, another disastrous year for a guy once considered among the brightest young Americans on the PGA TOUR. He finished outside the top 150 on the money list for the third straight year. He was worried about his future, so desperate to keep his job that he willingly traded his bow for a golf club.

Stricker dropped off his 7-year-old daughter at school and headed for Cherokee Country Club, owned by his father-in-law. There were trailer homes stacked together with one side knocked out, allowing players to be inside hitting balls toward the practice range.

"We use yellow balls in the winter, white balls in the summer," Stricker said. "So you can see the balls in the wintertime. There are flags out there. I think they're frozen by that time of the year, but you have a lot to aim at. And you can get a lot done."

So began the long road back to where Stricker always thought he should be.

He started the 2006 season with no status on the PGA TOUR, begging for sponsors' exemptions. He ended the year getting serious consideration as a captain's pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

And it's only getting better.

He had a share of the lead with nine holes to play at the U.S. Open until taking consecutive double bogeys on his way to a 42. Then came the Open Championship, where he played in the final group and was one shot behind with 10 holes remaining until a horrid round of putting -- the strength of his game -- caught up with him.

He also had chances to win on two of the toughest courses on the PGA TOUR, Quail Hollow at the Wachovia Championship and Congressional at the AT&T National. Such steady play has carried him to No. 13 in the world ranking. Although he still hasn't won in six years, dejection now comes with a dose of perspective.

"It's been a great year, but it's been a mixed bag of emotions, from riding some highs to experiencing some disappointments with not being able to finish a couple of tournaments off," Stricker said. "From where I've come a couple of years ago to where I feel like I am today, it's very rewarding and I'm very excited."

Stricker essentially has had two careers.

The first was in 1996, when he won twice on the PGA TOUR, finished No. 4 on the money list and represented the United States in the Presidents Cup and the Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews.

The second career began in late April 2006, two weeks before his second daughter was born. Playing for the fourth time in four months because he had no status, Stricker finished third at the Shell Houston Open on a sponsor's exemption. Then came the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open, where he tied for sixth, and another top 10 in the PGA Championship.

Which career was more satisfying?

"Now, for sure," Stricker said. "I don't know if I knew exactly what I was doing back then, where I was going with everything. I've seen where I was and where I went, and it's much more rewarding to be doing this again. It's unbelievable at times, that I've actually gotten back to where I am now."

Some find it hard to believe he ever went away.

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He first played Southern Hills in the 1996 Tour Championship, when he finished third. That was the year Tiger Woods turned pro, when Phil Mickelson won four times, when David Duval was piling up runner-up finishes on the verge of breaking through.

Stricker was one of them.

He joined Mickelson and Mark O'Meara at the Dunhill Cup that fall, a series of medal matches at St. Andrews. Mickelson was so impressed he suggested Stricker take on the other country's best player in each round.

Stricker went 5-0 and led the Americans to victory.

"Incredibly solid," Mickelson said. "He was one of the top players. And he obviously has returned to his form."

Stricker is still not sure why it left him.

The simple explanation was equipment. He had such a good year that equipment companies offered him lucrative deals to play their clubs, and he struggled, particularly finding a driver. He plummeted to 130th on the money list the next year.

"I don't know if it was a combination of a couple of things, equipment and attitude," he said. "I played a lot at the end of '96. I had that good year, and I played all those funny season things. And I was worn out when I came back in 1997."

So, it was somewhat of a shock in 1998 when he battled Vijay Singh at Sahalee in the PGA Championship.

More amazing to Dennis Tiziani, the former golf coach at Wisconsin and Stricker's father-in-law, is how he returned.

They worked on one piece of the swing at a time during those wintry days in 2005, trying to get back to the basics. They worked on making sure his arms didn't get behind him, the club stayed on plane. They concentrated on his footwork, on shortening his swing.

"He worked all day," Tiziani said. "He'll always put in that extra hour. He would go up there to the trailers on his own, day after day after day. He got himself into this problem, but here's the strength of it -- he got himself out."

Stricker already has earned a career-high $2.5 million this year, and he's 10th in the FedExCup standings, which likely will put him in the TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola for the first time in six years. He's also a virtual lock to make the Presidents Cup team for the first time since 1996.

All he lacks is a victory, and nothing would be sweeter than picking one up at Southern Hills for his first major.

"It's just been a great run," he said. "This time around, I don't want it to end. I'm 40, so I'm looking at maybe five or six more good years, hopefully. I want to finish it off a little bit better than I did the first time."

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