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Steve Stricker is quietly one shot behind at U.S. Open

Stricker plays it straight at Merion, possibly on the way to his first major championship at age 46.

June 15, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Steve Stricker lets loose with a semi-fist pump after sinking a 13-foot putt to save par on the 18th hole Saturday at the U.S. Open.
Steve Stricker lets loose with a semi-fist pump after sinking a 13-foot… (Morry Gash / Associated…)

ARDMORE, Pa. — Steve Stricker, true to his personality, played another wild and crazy round in the U.S. Open golf tournament Saturday.

One double bogey. Two birdies. Even-par 70.

Also, one semi-fist pump and a smile, followed quickly by a return to stone-faced composure. Mannequins have shown more emotion.

The smile came after he saved par with a 13-foot putt on the 18th hole that left him a shot out of the lead going into Sunday's usual U.S. Open agony and ecstasy.

"It was a big putt," Stricker said. "I wanted to be at even par. I thought maybe the lead would be two under. It kept my momentum going for tomorrow."

A straight answer from the ultimate straight guy. He doesn't hit it long, just … yes, straight.

While the rest of the players bounced up and down all afternoon on the leaderboard, Stricker barely moved. He began a shot back and finished a shot back. He had a hiccup on the snarky par-three No. 9, hitting it in the little creek in front and taking a five. Three holes and two birdies later, he was back at even par.

"It feels good," he said. "It was a tough day again today. It's a trying golf course."

And a bit later, the knee-slapper: "This is the longest short course I've heard of."

All chiding aside, Stricker's non-controversial, Mr. Clean image has made him a popular player on the tour and in its galleries. People embrace the solid-guy, uncomplicated-family-man persona. As a matter of fact, he is becoming famous for not being famous. He has turned bland into bullion.

In the last few weeks, a TV commercial for Avis has made the role of never being wild and crazy kind of wild and crazy.

In the commercial, Stricker is driving along in a car and going about 20 miles an hour. An elderly couple passes and stares him down for going so slow. While that is happening, he says that his Avis rentals give him a stereo that can "blast pulse-pounding music that can turn a man into a beast," and that by the time he arrives, "I am more than in the zone. I am a savage." In the background, the radio can barely be heard. Polka music?

The commercial ends with him trying to take his golf clubs away from the valet parking attendant because nobody should have to carry his bag.

The commercial is a hoot, and so was Stricker's reaction when asked about it after his round Saturday. Is he enjoying his new "savage" image?

"I hear that a lot from the galleries," he said. "But I'm really not a savage. I felt like a dork making it."

All indications are that he is as good a person as you'll find on the tour. Phil Mickelson got family props for flying back to California for his daughter's eighth-grade graduation the day before the tournament. Stricker, still playing as well as anybody on the tour this year except perhaps Tiger Woods, announced before the season that he was curtailing his schedule to 10-12 tournaments. He said he wanted more time with his family.

He lives in Madison, Wis., and loves the outdoors there. He hunts and fishes and rides his John Deere tractor, well earned by winning the tournament Deere sponsors three times. He smiled the most during his post-round interview when the subject of family came up. He said his was here with him, that his two daughters had friends along.

"No curfew here," he said. "It's up until 11:30 every night and frozen yogurt."

Vanilla, presumably.

He is an international golf star — once as high as No. 2 in the world, with career winnings of $37 million — who is on Twitter and has only 6,990 followers.

There is no worry that his tweets will get him in trouble. One recent one praised the University of Illinois golf team, of which he was once a member. Another cheered a Chicago Blackhawks victory. Yet another described a practice round here. "Wet day," it said.

His father-in-law, Dennis Tiziani, described Stricker to the Associated Press a year ago: "He is as considerate talking to a big executive in town as he is talking to the guy working Aisle 4 at Home Depot."

If he wins Sunday — and his personality and ability to stay cool might be the winning factor on a Merion Golf Club course where the wheels keep falling off for most of the other players — he would become the oldest U.S. Open champion. He is 46. When Hale Irwin won in 1990, he was 45 years and 15 days old.

Three players, including Stricker, trail leader Mickelson by a shot. Stricker won't be in the final twosome with Mickelson, but he won't need any gallery inspiration.

Expect to see a car come to the driving range, a savage behind the wheel, music cranked up. Maybe some Yanni.

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