Tate: Stricker a smooth operator
Arnold Palmer popularized golf in the United States with a vicious swing and a flamboyant style a half-century ago.
His jaw set in attack mode, he stood far from the ball, lifted his left heel and exploded like a home run hitter, quick and violent. His physical talent allowed him to win 62 PGA tour events, 29 between 1960 and '63.
He was great. Until he got older. Then it hurt just to watch. After age 42, he won one PGA tour event. Arnie's Army kept expecting what he could no longer deliver.
Steve Stricker, by contrast, gets better with age. He looks like he's taking a nap over the ball. He's smoooooooooth as a glass of Chianti.
Among technicians, Stricker has the most limited, efficient swing plane in professional golf. It's a pure pendulum that carries over to his putting, which may be the best on tour ... left hand dominant, heel slightly off the ground, a tiny waggle with the left wrist cupped, and rolling the ball with robotic consistency.
He'll go on forever. Before turning 45 in Feburary, Stricker opened the 2012 season with his 12th tour triumph in the Hyundai Classic (Maui), again displaying the remarkably simple stroke that made him a two-time Comeback Player of the Year after losing his tour card in 2005. His career earnings are now over $33 million, including $1.1 million in the last four events since mid-July. He tied for second in the Bridgestone as recently as Aug. 2-5.
Advice from the expert
"I don't hit it as long as some, but I hit it long enough," Stricker said at Stone Creek's annual Illini golf function Monday. "It's all about ball control. I just want to stay in play and get to the strengths of my game, wedges and putting. The biggest fundamental is the transition from top to bottom. Timing is the key. We all tend to get quick at the top.
"At the end of 2005, I was using a long swing that crossed the line at the top. I went to work that winter on shortening it up, firming it up."
Speaking to the assemblage of golfers in Urbana, he said:
"I've simplified so much in the last six years, and it allows me to continually work on the same things. I return to the same thoughts. You see guys change from one idea to another. I stick with the same principles. I knew I was on the right track when I changed. The ball doesn't lie."
Stricker expects U.S. captain Davis Love to name him to one of the four remaining openings on the 12-man Ryder Cup team. Tiger Woods, Masters champion Bubba Watson and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson are among eight already guaranteed spots against the Europeans at Chicago's Medinah Country Club in late September. Stricker and Jim Furyk look like the next two on the list when it is released Sept. 4.
"I've had some nice talks with Davis Love and he knows I want to participate," Stricker said. "The atmosphere in Chicago will be tremendous. Hopefully I can play well in the next couple of weeks. I'd like to help us win back the Cup. I was on the team that lost in Wales."
Stricker said he was more nervous representing the U.S. than at any time.
"Golf is such an individual sport, but this is a case where 12 guys come together as a team. We root for each other instead of beating up on each other. This is a busy time for me. If I make the Ryder Cup team, I'll be playing in 10 of the next 13 weeks."
Gang's all here
It tells a lot about UI coach Mike Small's highly successful UI program that four of his recent stars returned Monday from their professional exploits.
Two-time Big Ten champ Luke Guthrie, who broke Stricker's Illini career scoring record, is the hottest item, having already earned $284,000 on the PGA tour and $153,000 in four events on the Web.com tour.
Also present were 2010 NCAA champion Scott Langley, Chris DeForest and Zach Barlow.
"It makes me proud to see these guys," Small said. "Guthrie has played just seven tournaments and is doing great. He drove all night from Kansas City to get here."
Guthrie finished sixth and DeForest was 11th in Kansas City's Web.com event. Guthrie will skip the upcoming tournament in Knoxville, then will drive to Pittsburgh for a stretch of seven or eight straight Web.com events. He is already among the Top 25, which is the cutoff point for those earing their PGA tour cards in 2013.
"Getting this fast start is a bonus," said Guthrie, personally contracted with Ping for support. "It's nice to avoid individual sponsorship. I'm just trying to be solid with my game. I don't bomb the ball like Chris. I just want to play position and avoid mistakes."
The left-handed Langley has made the cut in three of four PGA tour events, and has finished 16th and 29th in his two U.S. Open tournaments.
"I feel my game is the best it has been," Langley said. "I think my second time in the U.S. Open validated the first. That's the best tournament in the world. But right now I'm focused on the Web.com tour."
Barlow is at the next level, the E-Golf tour, and will attend Q school in September.
The return of Stricker and these four, having attended a school where junior Thomas Pieters is defending NCAA champion, demonstrates how far this golf program has advanced.
Loren Tate writres for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.