MELBOURNE, Australia — Fred Couples got word Monday afternoon that Steve Stricker wanted to speak with him, and the U.S. captain quickly drove away. Moments later, he and Stricker were sharing a laugh on the putting green.
Stricker was in great spirits at the Presidents Cup, and his left arm felt close to the same.
“It’s been good,” Stricker said of a neck injury that caused weakness in his left arm toward the end of the FedEx Cup playoffs in September. “To be honest, it feels like it did all year long.”
About an hour later, Couples was over at the short-game area at Royal Melbourne watching Hunter Mahan hit chip shots, pleased to know that weekend rest made another of his American players feel as good as new.
Health no longer seems to be a big issue for the American team.
Stricker presented the biggest concern, not only as the highest-ranked American at Royal American (No. 5), but as the partner for Tiger Woods when they won all four of their matches two years ago at Harding Park in another U.S. victory.
The pain in his neck began a year ago when he was in a deer stand during the offseason, taking aim with his bow when his left arm collapsed. Exercise got it up to full strength again, and Stricker went on to win the Memorial and the John Deere Classic. But he relaxed his workout regimen, and his left arm felt so weak in September that he withdrew from the BMW Championship.
Unlike the rest of the U.S. team, Stricker has not played a competitive round since Sept. 25, at the Tour Championship. There were times he wondered if he should look into surgery, or try to play the Presidents Cup and risk missing chunks of the 2012 if it didn’t get better.
At the moment, that’s no longer the case — though he did have a scare.
“I kept playing while I was at home. I would play two or three times a week because we had great weather,” said Stricker, who lives in Wisconsin. “It was never an issue. About 10 days prior to leaving for Phoenix, I started hitting balls again. The first day went good, the second day was not so good. And that concerned me.
“But I kept hitting, and it felt good,” he said. “And it’s been fine every day since then.”
Stricker went to Arizona last week with his brother-in-law, Mario Tiziani, who has played on the PGA Tour. They played their own version of fourballs, each hitting two tee shots, two irons shots, two chips, putts, whatever it was needed. It essentially was two balls by Stricker against two balls by Tiziani.
He didn’t say who won, only that he made a lot of birdies.
“I got in the habit of making birdies, which is a good thing,” Stricker said.
The International team, captained by Greg Norman, was scheduled to have its first full practice session Tuesday, as did the Americans.
Stricker was among eight American team members on the course Monday. South Korea’s K.J. Choi was the only International player to practice, although Norman and his assistant captains Frank Nobilo and Tim Clark surveyed the course.
Stricker has played two rounds on the Composite Course at Royal Melbourne, one of the finest courses in the world, which put him ahead of the curve compared with the rest of the teams. Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk were the only American returnees from the 1998 team at Royal Melbourne when the International team won in a landslide.
Furyk had the most bizarre travel schedule. He played two weeks in Shanghai, then flew home to Florida for four days before leaving to come back to this side of the world. Just his luck, the airlines lost his golf clubs, though they finally arrived Monday.
Stricker kept one eye north of Melbourne at his partner, Woods, who looked as good as he has all year by finishing two shots behind in the Australian Open. It led to a question of whether now it would be a case of Woods hitting the ball and dragging Stricker.
“No,” Stricker said. “I’ll hold up my end of the deal.”
Mahan withdrew from the second round of the Australian Open when he felt pain behind his right shoulder, keeping him from making a full turn. Not wanting to risk further injury at the Presidents Cup, he felt a few days of rest would do him good.
His trainer flew over to Australia and worked on Mahan on Monday morning, and he headed to the range to hit 50 balls.
“Everything is phenomenal. It’s really good,” Mahan said. “It got better every day. Just one of those things where I just needed rest. I swung it well. There was no holding on to the club, no hoping.”
Just like Stricker, there was a brief moment of concern for Mahan, as is the case with any injury for a 29-year-old who has never had health issues in his young career.
“I think you’re always relieved,” Mahan said. “There was a little fear when you can’t swing the club. I’ve never had an injury.”
The U.S. team was having their first dinner Monday night before practicing together on Tuesday. The matches begin Thursday at Royal Melbourne, site of the only Presidents Cup the Americans have lost since the matches began in 1994.