Bunker Mentality

Two good to be true?

Bunker Mentality

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So here is a question for you: if you had to nominate one player (not named Tiger Woods) to take on the devil in a win-or-be-damned 18 hole shoot-out on your behalf, who would you choose?

You might go for the naturally gifted Phil Mickelson? Or the mentally tough Padraig Harrington? Or perhaps someone like Retief Goosen who consistently performs well in Major championships?

However, you suspect that few, particularly in Europe, would put their souls in the hands of Mr Steve Stricker and ask him to protect them from eternal damnation.

Yes, that is the same Steve Stricker who according to official rankings is the best player in the world who doesn't wear a red shirt and black slacks on Sundays.

To the casual golf fan who just tunes in for the Majors and the Ryder Cup it seems like a baffling statistic. Steve Stricker? Second best best player in the world? Pull the other one - I couldn't even pick him out of a line-up!

Yet this nondescript 42-year-old from nondescript Wisconsin has quietly gone about earning over $6 million on the US PGA Tour this season to take his career earnings up to over $23 million.

He has won three events this season, has a first place and a second place finish in the bizarrely formatted FedEx play-offs (see the link under the picture for BM's take on that doozy of a system) and he goes into this weekend's Tour Championship finale in second place in the FedEx standings behind Woods.

If he manages to finish ahead of Tiger at East Lake this weekend, then there is a good chance he will walk away with a cheque for a mind-boggling $10m for winning the FedEx series.

And yet, we go back to THAT statistic, second best player in the world? Are you kidding me?

The problem is that Stricker has never really done it on the big stage. Well, that's not entirely fair, something like the Deutsche Bank Championship, which Stricker won earlier this month, is a big event in terms of monetary value, but did anybody this side of the pond actually see it?

Would you forgo your Sunday evening to watch somebody like Stricker edge out the likes of Jason Dufner and Scott Verplank to win some event in Boston named after a German financial institution?

Big-time golf fans would have appreciated its relevance but most were probably long in our slumbers, having nightmares about returning to work on Monday by the time Stricker picked up his trophy and $1.35m cheque.

Sorry Steve, but if you want to make noise with a European audience then you better do it when we are paying attention.

Stricker's Major record in recent memory has been underwhelming to say the least. Sure he finished second at the US PGA Championship back in 1998, but he has failed to finish in the top five of a Major championship THIS DECADE.

We often see him doing well, he has had five top-10 finishes in Majors in the last four years, but as citizens of the world, we expect more than tied seventh from our second best golfer.

Then there was Stricker's sole appearance at the Ryder Cup in 2008. The USA reclaimed the trophy but Stricker contributed just half-a-point in his three matches while a much lesser golfer in the shape of Boo Weekley rocked into our consciousness with his fist-pumping antics.

Stricker had again passed us by unnoticed. He is the lottery ticket winner who remains anonymous.

All of which is a shame because Stricker's story is one of the most remarkable on the Tour. From somebody who was challenging for Majors in the late 90s (he finished fifth in the US Open in 1998 and 1999), Stricker then suffered an almighty slump in the first half of the decade and even lost his US Tour card in 2005.

His return to form was so great that the US Tour rather embarrassingly had to award him comeback player of the year two years in a row, as he went from being bad to good to being (almost) great in the space of two seasons.

We leave the almost above in brackets for now because we are still waiting for Stricker to make that one BIG statement that is heard around the golfing world. The sort of statement that yells: "Look at me, I AM the second best player in the world."

Can he do it? Time will tell, but winning $10m this weekend would be a good start.

FIRST PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2009

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