If there was a surprise at The Players Championship, it was this: With the world’s No. 5, Graeme McDowell, leading through 54 holes and three other top 15 players – Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, and Nick Watney – within three of his lead, not many envisioned it coming down to K.J. Choi vs. David Toms.
Not that Choi and Toms should apologize, mind you. There are 20 PGA Tour wins to their combined credit, after all.
It’s just that if you could feel a buzz at the Stadium Course – besides watching Tiger Woods slip flawlessly into a neat-looking white Mercedes, that is – it centered around a possible new No. 1 (Donald could have pulled it off had he won) and the fact that names who are consistently in the mix do generate interest. In particular, the sight of Stricker’s name looming on the leaderboard was intriguing and prompted a run to the stats, just to offer a reminder as to how good he has been.
Since 2009, Stricker has played in 50 PGA Tour tournaments. He’s missed just three cuts, but the most recent one was the 2009 PGA Championship. At 32, he has the longest consecutive streak of cuts made, but that’s just one bite of the Stricker flavor.
His consistency is the largest appeal.
Nearly half of his starts since 2009 (23 of 50, or 46 percent, to be exact) have been of the top 10 variety, five of them victories. While he has yet to win in 2011, Stricker has been on the sort of roll players dream about. Against full-field events, Stricker in his last four tournaments has gone T-4, T-11 (Masters), T-13, and T-12, and for the season his 32 stroke-play rounds have produced 17 scores in the 60s and 24 in red numbers. His worst day has been 74 and only four times has he shot over par.
For all the knocks that the world rankings take, they correctly reflect Stricker’s status – he’s seventh overall, but he’s ranked as the second American behind No. 4 Phil Mickelson. Crunch the numbers since 2009 and it’s eerie how similarly consistent these two have been:
• Steve Stricker
(PGA Tour starts: 50; Wins: 5; Top 10s: 23; MCs, WDs: 3; Overall money: $11,862,105; Money per start: $237,242)
• Phil Mickelson
(PGA Tour starts: 49; Wins: 5; Top 10s: 17; MCs, WDs: 4; Overall money: $11,516,640; Money per start: $235,033)
One could argue that Tiger Woods’ numbers in this same period are better – and they are (35 starts, 6 wins, 18 top 10s, $12,374,291), but only because of his massive 2009 season when he won six of 17 tournaments. However, you can’t say his body of work in 2010-11 puts him in the company with Mickelson and Stricker, who rightfully rank as the top two Americans.
Gary Woodland has made significant progress in 2011. Not so, Shaaban Hussin. In fact, Hussin has gone in reverse.
Hey, he started the year ranked No. 587 in the world and if you’re thinking what’s the big deal, consider that he was one spot in front of Woodland. In fact, Woodland began the year ranked behind John Daly, believe it or not.
But with a win, a second, and four finishes in the top 25, Woodland has climbed a whopping 539 spots to sit No. 49 in the world.
Alas, Hussin has fallen to No. 635.
And Daly? He has sunk all the way to 810th, though he still sits two spots ahead of Maurico Molina, perhaps the only Molina who isn’t playing major league baseball.
Keeping with the world ranking theme, give Rickie Fowler credit for fresh honesty. He moved inside the top 50 about a year ago and has held steady. Starting the year 28th, he’s now 41st, but Fowler is shrewd enough at 22 to appreciate what such a lofty spot brings – exemptions into the majors, the World Golf Championships, and the invitationals.
“In a way, it’s like you’ve won,” said Fowler, who has three seconds and two thirds, but no wins.
Though Fowler has lost 13 spots since the start of the year, he has avoided the big fall that has ensnared others. Of those ranked in the top 50 as of Jan. 3, Sean O’Hair (43rd to 76th) has fallen the worst, 33 positions. Camilo Villegas (37 to 68) has dropped 31 spots, Anthony Kim (31-55) 24, and Stewart Cink (47-69) 22.
After Woodland, the biggest jumps by those currently inside the top 50 belong to Aaron Baddeley (278th to 50th, a whopping improvement of 228) and Rory Sabbatini (98th to 47th, up 51).
Among those in attendance at TPC Sawgrass for The Players Championship was Jean Van de Velde. Now retired from fulltime competition (he’ll play the French Open and the Dunhill Links) and living in Hong Kong, Van de Velde was in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., as part of his duties with Sky Sports.
Still a pleasure to be around, personable to the fullest, and in possession of total perspective, Van de Velde maintains a terrific sense of humor.
Talking about his efforts on behalf of his nation to successfully secure the Ryder Cup bid in 2018, Van de Velde offered this difference between the next two European host sites for the biennial competition:
“At Gleaneagles (2014), you bring our wife,” Van de Velde said. “In Paris (2018), you don’t bring your wife.”