With Philly backdrop, Stricker plays the role of Rocky

Despite saying all season that he likely would not play in the Tour Championship, Steve Stricker has made the decision to travel to Atlanta because of his current eighth-place standing in the FedEx Cup standings.

ARDMORE, Pa. – If Steve Stricker wins the U.S. Open on Sunday, Merion Golf Club may be washed away in a sea of tears. Baffling Brook, which crosses six of Merion’s holes, will certainly overflow, and it will surpass the deluge of Tropical Storm Andrea.

Former U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange may have put it best: “We’ll all be crying,” he said.

Stricker, 46, has bawled like a baby after most of his 12 PGA Tour victories, but nothing would compare to winning that elusive first major and becoming the oldest winner of the U.S. Open. He is tied for second, one stroke behind 54-hole leader Phil Mickelson after shooting an even-par 70 for a three-round total of 210. What would a major mean to Stricker, a player who shifted into semi-retirement this season, at this stage in his career?

“It would be unbelievable,” Stricker said.

Stricker is one of the Tour’s most popular players, an unassuming Midwesterner, whose father-in-law and longtime golf coach, Dennis Tiziani, likes to joke that Stricker's primary demographic is women over 60.

On a leaderboard packed with talent, Stricker has emerged as the perfect figure to cast in the role of Rocky Balboa. Like the fictional boxer from Philadelphia, Stricker has played the role of the down-on-his-luck pro who resurrected his career from the scrap heap. Stricker punched back so well that fellow PGA Tour pros voted him comeback player of the year, not once but twice – and in consecutive years (2006, '07).

It would be fitting if Stricker won the U.S. Open in the City of Brotherly Love, Rocky’s hometown, since the movie played a part in the golfer’s revival. Around the time of Stricker’s struggles, Tiziani suggested Stricker study the career arc of Balboa.

"It was to motivate him, you know, 'Eye of the Tiger,' " Tiziani said. "Rocky went out in the snow and lifted all those logs."

Stricker adopted his own Rocky-like regimen, pounding yellow practice balls out of an open-ended, three-sided trailer into the Wisconsin snowdrifts. He shortened his swing and resumed hitting straight shots down the fairway or toward the flag with the assurance of a man who knew exactly what he was doing.

Yet, heading into this week, Stricker didn’t know what to expect. He has played only six tournaments, and last competed five weeks ago at The Players Championship. Nevertheless, he liked the way he was hitting the ball at home, “but that’s home,” he said. “It’s not out here.”

Stricker still feels the tug of competitive golf, and he knows he’s running out of time to win a major. He hung tough in the third round, stringing together eight pars to start his third round before splashing his tee shot into the water at the 231-yard ninth hole. He made double bogey, but rebounded with birdies at Nos. 10 and 12, and canned a clutch 12-foot par putt at the closing hole.

Stricker’s silky, smooth putting stroke may be the key to his chances. He is considered one of the best putters on Tour, but the short stick has abandoned him whenever he has contended in a major. On Sunday, it’s time for Stricker to apply the knockout punch. Then the levee of tears can break.

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