Stricker challenges Johnson despite pain in leg
KAPALUA, Hawaii - It’s a tough assignment, trying to take down Goliath when all you have in your hand is a tiny pebble and no slingshot. That’s how veteran Steve Stricker, hampered by injury, had to feel trying to challenge long-bopping Dustin Johnson on the rolling, wide-open former pineapple field known as Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course.
When healthy last season, Stricker gave up roughly 25 yards in average driving distance to Johnson (285.4 to 310.2). Tuesday, he gave up even more. Yet with guts and guile, Stricker hung in there as best that he could, sending a tremor through Johnson when he stood over a 25-footer on the 13th green with a chance to pull even with five holes to play.
“I really expected him to make it,” Johnson said. “When Steve stands over a putt, you kind of always expect it to go in.”
But Stricker missed, and Johnson would answer one hole later with a bold driver play at the 292-yard 14th hole and a deft little pitch-in for eagle he bumped in from 52 yards. Game, set, match. Johnson, golf's 54-hole king, would shoot 16-under 203 and win by four. Mahalo for coming.
Stricker, who turns 46 next month and plans to trim his schedule to 10-12 events to spend more time with family and to start a charitable foundation back home in Wisconsin, was trying to earn his way back to the TOC with a victory out of the gate. That’s the model he’d followed one year earlier here. But the powerful play of Johnson and the jarring pain shooting up Stricker’s leg each time he got to his left side simply proved too much.
Stricker would have to settle for the 12th runner-up finish of his career (to accompany 12 PGA Tour victories) after a closing, bogey-free, 4-under 69, Stricker’s 14th consecutive round under par at the Plantation. This venue has been quite good to him; his last five appearances include a victory, two seconds and a fourth, and Tuesday’s showing left him $665,000 richer.
“Yeah, it was a good week. I had an opportunity, which is why we play – to have the opportunity to win,” Stricker said. “I had some chances today. … He kind of let me in there for a second (with a double bogey at 13). But then again, he hit a tremendous shot on the next hole. He’s a tremendous talent.”
So is Stricker, and the Tour is going to miss seeing him on a more regular basis. At Kapalua, Stricker wasn’t at full throttle physically on a golf course where players can really let it fly. This is a course where you don’t need shoelaces. The Plantation features the widest fairways Tour players will see all year, but Stricker was left to “chip” the ball around, keeping everything in front of him as he took a more limited, conservative approach.
The pain was such that even before he hit his first official drive a day earlier, Stricker had informed Tour officials that he might not make it to the first tee. Then again, that wouldn’t be very Stricker-like, would it? He was determined to find a way, and he did.
And he did it better than 28 of the other 29 players in the field, one Dustin Johnson notwithstanding.
Stricker doesn’t know for sure if the pain he is feeling shooting up his left leg is the result of a muscle strain or or a lower-back issue (“My back feels great,” he said). He said he’ll get it checked out when he returns home. He first felt the twinge last month, when competing at Tiger Woods’ World Challenge. At Kapalua, the pain made it difficult to walk down steep hills and kept him from swinging aggressively at shots. Moving to his left side meant feeling the same jolt each time he did it. He hopes it’s simply a muscle issue that will improve with rehab and rest.
“It was hard to twist through the ball,” he said. “I never really tried to hit it all that hard. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power.”
Next up for Stricker? A few days off on Maui with his wife and two daughters, which in itself will be something of a shock to his system. In other years he's played Kapalua, he’d head straight across to Oahu to begin getting ready for the Sony Open. The new Stricker scaled-back plan starts this week, and already he is enjoying the vibe of it.
“I felt very little pressure here this week, and maybe that’s why I played well, too,” he said. “I didn’t expect a lot. I had this different attitude about playing a little bit less, and I felt a little more comfortable and had pressure taken off me this week. I’m hoping that kind of translates into the rest of the season.”
Stricker’s next event will be the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February. Asked if the razor stubble on his face might grow to be a full beard the next time we see him in action, Stricker laughed and shook his head.
“No, this will be gone,” he said, pawing his chin. “I just got a little lazy this week.”
Hey, it’s paradise. Perfectly understandable.