The difference between the current top two active golfers in the world was on fascinating display Thursday afternoon, as the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera ended.
On a little porch overlooking the practice green, No. 2 Phil Mickelson, fresh off his one-over-par 72, stood and signed autographs for an adoring horde. Caps, T-shirts, slips of paper were thrust forth and Mickelson, as is his nature, signed all.
Ten feet away, on the putting green, No. 3 Steve Stricker, having carded a four-under 67 and positioned himself only three shots off the lead, talked quietly with a reporter, uninterrupted and mostly unnoticed.
With No. 1 missing in action and Mickelson's No. 2 a confirmation of his great game and ever-growing celebrity, Stricker may be the quietest No. 3 in the history of the game. That's not because he is unfriendly or bland -- quite the opposite, in fact. Nor is it that he is considerably less talented, if at all, than MIA or Mickelson. Stricker won three times last year and pocketed $6,632,636.
Mostly, it's because he is an ordinary Midwestern guy who doesn't throw clubs, doesn't smile a lot nor scowl a lot for the cameras, and hasn't won a major. His story line is about as sexy as Gomer Pyle.
Stricker will turn 43 in 2 1/2 weeks, has played at least one pro tour match for 21 years and is in his 17th year of full-time competition. He is from Madison, Wis., where prime golf season is July 1-15. When he's back there during the winter, he keeps his game alive by hitting balls out of a trailer into the snow and ice at a driving range.
"The trailer is heated," Stricker says. "It gets pretty hot in there."
When his game went bad for about three years, starting in 2003, he went back to the trailer, and to his wife and two daughters, and hit himself out of the slump.
"It's just a matter of having a club in your hand every day," he says. "Of course, you don't get to work on a real golf course, and you lose a little in your short game."
To compensate, Stricker says he gets out of the cold weather a day earlier than normal, as he did with his arrival at Riviera on Sunday night for a day-early Monday practice round. That resulted Thursday in a round of one eagle, four birdies and two bogeys. It also resulted in two shots chipped in, one for eagle and one for birdie, and a beautifully managed chip from the high fringe on the difficult 18th to 2 feet 10 inches, saving par.
His entire round was a display of intelligent shot-making and course management, even though, like all pro golfers, he remembered the might-have-beens.
"This was a good start," Stricker says, adding in a typical self-effacing summary, "but I did a couple of boneheaded things too. I three-putted from eight feet on one hole. There was a jackhammer going in the background and I just couldn't get it out of my head."
Last year, Stricker's Southern California swing resulted in two frustrating near-misses. At the Bob Hope in La Quinta, he was three shots ahead going into the last round. But with the wind blowing as only it can in January in the desert, Stricker hit one tee shot into the water and another into somebody's backyard on the same hole and finished with a crushing 77. Then, he had the lead in the Northern Trust late in the final round, bogeyed the last hole and lost to Mickelson.
"That one here last year still stings a little," Stricker says.
He also calls those near-misses, occurring so early in the year and during his quick trips off the Wisconsin tundra, "building blocks" to his best year ever.
He says he is hoping for more of the same this year, that while he occasionally allows thoughts of the senior tour to creep in, he has lots of reachable goals, such as a major title and a spot on the Ryder Cup team this year.
"I guess, being No. 3, there's additional pressure," Stricker says. "But I try to forget that and just play."
The interview ends with a smile and a handshake. Ten feet away, Mickelson is down to his last 50 or so autograph seekers.