ATLANTA – Some are trying to impress a captain. Some are trying to add millions more to their bank account. Some are trying to win a tournament that they consider prestigious.
But when Steve Stricker took to the first tee at East Lake Golf Club Thursday, the opening round of the Tour Championship wasn’t as much the FedEx Cup finale as it was a chance to prove himself.
Health-wise, that is.
“I was a little worried about it,” Stricker said of a recurring problem in his left arm. “I’ve been struggling with my swing, but it felt better as the whole day went on.”
At last week’s BMW Championship outside of Chicago, Stricker withdrew after two rounds. It’s not that there’s pain in his left arm; it’s more about the lack of strength. Stricker said he was diagnosed with a herniated disk late last year, and when he’s done strength tests, the left arm has lifted 20 pounds less than the right arm.
So unlike most of his competitors in this mega-rich tournament, Stricker was perhaps more curious than competitive at the outset. Of course, when he birdied the opening hole and made a brilliant up-and-down from a greenside bunker at the second, Stricker quickly realized he was in good form.
“I drove the ball nicely,” said Stricker, after hitting eight of 14 fairways and missing most of the six onto the first cut. “It was solid all the way around.”
At 2-under 68, Stricker is four off of the clubhouse lead – Keegan Bradley’s 64 – but this was a day more about testing his left arm.
So in that respect, consider Stricker to have had a day as good as anyone else.
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If they are auditioning for Presidents Cup spots, Bradley, Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker have posted positive starts.
Bradley came home in 31 to shoot 6-under 64. That was good enough for a two-stroke lead over Jason Dufner, Chez Reavie and Luke Donald, but it’s not like Haas and Snedeker, both of whom shot 68, did anything to hurt their candidacies in the eyes of captain Fred Couples.
Just as intriguing is the International side, where Aaron Baddeley is considered a leading candidate for one of the two captain’s picks.
No, he’s not thinking about the decision facing Greg Norman, at least not over every shot. But, yes, “every day, definitely (I feel) the pressure,” Baddeley said.
Baddeley had it to 3 under when he bogeyed the par-4 17th, but he avoided a bigger mishap at the 18th when he pulled a 6-iron into the grandstands at the 222-yard, par-3 18th. That’s right: He hit it out of the park. But instead of touching them all, Baddeley got a free drop and negotiated a superb up-and-down from 25 yards to shoot 68.
“It’s an important week,” the Aussie said. “But you try to put the matter out of your mind to give you a chance at winning the golf tournament.”
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With wife Heather expecting the couple’s second child sometime in October, it was suggested to Charles Howell III that he may put together a different schedule in 2012.
He disputed that.
“I love to play golf,” he said. “Even if you play 30 tournaments, that’s 22 weeks off. That’s a hell of a good job.
“Hey, a lot of people retire to play golf.”
Howell is at the Tour Championship for the first time since 2007. Not to brush off the honor of playing at East Lake, but the greatest reward is that he’s guaranteed spots into next year’s big tournaments, including the Masters.
There’s no measuring the satisfaction of that accomplishment, given that Howell is an Augusta, Ga., native and played seven straight Aprils, but was not in attendance each of the past three.
“Obviously, it’s my favorite tournament in the world,” Howell said. “It’s a big relief (to be in the Masters, U.S. Open, and British Open), for sure.”
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Phil Mickelson played a crisp round – three birdies, one bogey, 15 greens – and at 68 feels that “mentally, I’m in it.” For some reason, that hasn’t been the case the last few months as he has had just one top 10 in six starts dating to The Greenbrier Classic.
It seems difficult to believe, but 12 of the 30 qualifiers for this elite tournament did not win in 2011. One participant, Jason Dufner, actually is playing his second Tour Championship, and he remains winless in his PGA Tour career.
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The story has been told how Bradley’s caddie, Steven Hale, got the nickname Pepsi. If you don’t remember, it came about when Hale would place cans of Pepsi around the golf course when caddieing on the Nationwide Tour, when drinks were not easy to find.
When he graduated to the major leagues, Hale continued with his routine, including ironically this week at the Tour Championship, which is sponsored by Coca-Cola.
“I have a walk in the morning before my rounds, and I’d ditch my Pepsi in the weeds,” Hale said. “Right now, there are already Pepsis on this golf course waiting for me to pick them up. In twosomes, I hardly have a chance to drink them, and in threesomes you’re slow and you can have three of them in a round, and I don’t want to carry them.”
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For the second consecutive year, Bo Van Pelt teed off first in the season finale, due to the fact he was 30th in the FedEx Cup points coming to Atlanta.
For Van Pelt, this year is a refreshing change from last year, when he thought he earned his way here, but didn’t enjoy the experience.
This year, Van Pelt struggled at times, missing seven cuts, but solid finishes at The Barclays (T-24) and Deutsche Bank Championship (seventh) allowed him to play poorly in Chicago last week and still make the top 30.
“I’m trying to enjoy it more,” Van Pelt said after an opening-round 1-over 71. “I missed five of my first seven cuts and I didn’t win and I didn’t finish second, so to still get here, that’s pretty tough to do. And I felt like I putted pretty bad all year. If you look at my stats, it kind of supports that. So I guess I just kind of appreciate the fact that I’m here.”
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The 18th hole traditionally has been one of the most difficult holes at East Lake during the Tour Championship. In the 10 years of the event, dating to 1998, the par-3, measuring 235 yards has a stroke average of 3.18.
In Thursday’s first round, the 18th hole surrendered six birdies and produced only three bogeys, making it the 11th-most difficult hole on the golf course, with a 2.90 scoring average.
– Alex Miceli contributed