AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If you're looking for a dark horse to win the Masters, what about a man who has emerged from the darkest of golf's places? Steve Stricker. When he says, "I'm happy to be here," as he did more than once Monday, he means it.
Stricker missed four consecutive years at Augusta National--from 2003 through 2006--when he had trouble driving anywhere, let alone down Magnolia Lane. So to be a highly-ranked player (No. 4 in the world) starting Thursday represents another quantum leap for Stricker, who is taking this assignment very seriously, as witnessed by his suntan. "I didn't get this back home in Wisconsin," he says. "I've been playing a lot."
Indeed, this will make it four straight weeks for a fellow who does not apologize for enjoying his time off with family and friends. Stricker's highest finish ever in seven previous Masters is a T-10 in 2001, a slightly strange résumé, considering he is one of the best putters on the PGA Tour. "For some reason, I haven't putted well here," said Stricker, whose only explanation is that the greens at Augusta National are a tradition unlike any other. "That's one thing I'm going to work on this week."
Even when Stricker vanished from radar earlier this decade, he set aside Masters week for television viewing, as he has for as long as he remembers--in high school, then college, as he embraced dreams of becoming a professional golfer.
Oddsmakers, and experts, have installed Tiger Woods as THE favorite to win come Sunday evening. The same might be said of forecasts regarding all four majors. "He's the only player capable of the Grand Slam," says Stricker, who is twice-running comeback player of the year. "Sid Wilson of the tour called me last winter about having my name on the ballot again," Stricker recalled, smiling slightly. "He didn't want me to feel it was a slap in the face, or a mockery. Which I didn't. I thought of it as an honor."
It was his pal Woods who started campaigning during mid-summer of 2007. "Then I talked with Tiger at his tournament in December," Stricker went on. "And he said to me, 'just think . . . that's one thing you're going to have that nobody else will ever do. Like a record that will never be broken. And he was dead serious."
Stricker is not likely to three-peat, but he has those two awards sitting side by side back home in Cheeseland. "Same trophy," he said. "Just a different year on each one. And Tiger was right. It is kind of cool."