After injury, Stricker eager to defend Deere title

Steve Stricker at the Memorial golf tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Steve Stricker at the Memorial golf tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

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SILVIS, Ill. – Hanging out at home sits well with Steve Stricker – for a while, anyway.

Stricker, who’ll defend his title at the John Deere Classic starting Thursday, got plenty of time at his Madison, Wis., home earlier this year when he took six weeks off to rest an aching right shoulder.

The problem, an inflammation in the joint where the clavicle meets the sternum, interrupted a promising year for the 43-year-old Stricker. He is ranked fourth in the world, has made the cut in all 11 tournaments he’s played and has four top-10 finishes, including a victory in the Northern Trust Open in February.

But rest accompanied by therapy was the only cure, so Stricker sat.

Not that it was a hardship.

“It’s not hard for me to stay home,” he said with a laugh. “That part of it wasn’t too hard. But it got to a point where I’m like, geez, I gotta get going. And I wasn’t quite ready yet.”

Stricker pulled himself off the Tour after tying for 30th at the Masters. He didn’t play again until late May at the Colonial, where he was the defending champion and finished in a tie for 38th at 8-under.

He has played only twice since then, tying for 17th at the Memorial and finishing 15-over at the U.S. Open to tie for 58th.

For the rest of the time, it’s been home sweet home.

“I do a lot of family things, try to do some things with my kids,” said Stricker, who has two daughters, ages 4 and 11. “I took my daughter fishing last week for a couple of days, just to try to get away from it and not play at all and not even think about it at all.

“But then, when that’s over, you realize you gotta get back to work.”

For Stricker, getting back to work at TPC at Deere Run is as good a place as any.

Stricker tied the tournament record when he shot a 61 in last year’s second round, then came back with a 68 and 64 in Sunday’s 36-hole finale to beat Brett Quigley, Brandt Snedeker and local favorite Zach Johnson by three strokes.

“It’s always exciting to come back to a place where you’ve had success,” Stricker said. “Just driving in the gates and remembering some of the shots that happened down the stretch, the way the whole week played out last year, is always fun to look back at and reflect on a little bit. Coming off a couple of weeks off, I feel fresh and excited to play.”

Stricker said he’s having no problem with his shoulder, no pain, no tenderness. He’s not so sure he can say the same about his game.

“My game has kind of slowed a little bit, I feel like, the last couple of months,” he said. “I haven’t played a lot. I’m surely fresh and rested and ready to play. But I’ve been working on some things, too, and hopefully some of those things are starting to pan out in the right direction.”

With the Deere Classic falling the week before the British Open, many of the big names skip the event. But it still has a solid field that includes nine winners on this year’s tour.

Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, won the Colonial. This is the closest thing to a hometown tournament for Johnson, who grew up 75 miles to the west in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is on the event’s board of directors.

South African Tim Clark, second here in 2007, got his first PGA Tour victory when he won the Players Championship in May. Bubba Watson is coming off a victory at the Travelers Championship two weeks ago, while 22-year-old Australian Jason Day gained his first PGA win at the Byron Nelson Championship.

Clark experienced another first Wednesday, though not the kind he wanted. His clubs got hung up in Chicago during his travels and never made it to town, so he borrowed a set to play in the pro-am.

“Playing today, it’s not a big deal,” Clark said. “I still got out there and saw the course and played, but if I don’t have them tomorrow, I’ll be in trouble.”

Clark, Stricker, Johnson, Day and Watson are among the Deere Classic players who’ll take advantage of a charter jet that tournament organizers arranged to fly them to the British Open on Sunday night.

Tournament officials hoped the charter would encourage more golfers to play here this week. Anyone flying commercially from here – Silvis is 165 miles west of Chicago – would have to change planes three or four times before getting to St. Andrews.

“It certainly made it easier for us and I certainly think it’s helped attract a better field,” Clark said. “The British Open is an extremely important tournament for us. We want to be as well prepared as we possibly can be.”

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