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Stricker could be a big cheese at the U.S. Open

The Cheesehead Assassin, bless his gentle Midwestern soul, is back.

This news was the most positively delightful thing to come out of the golf world from the weekend, with a close second being the moment on the CBS broadcast where Jim Nantz announced, in full Nantz silkiness, that “Lady GA-GA will be on ’60 Minutes’ … tonight … on CBS."

Steve Stricker – the baby-faced 44-year-old from Wisconsin who will carve out your heart with his putter, hence my moniker for the man – is not just the champion of Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament. He also immediately joins the conversation of uber-serious contenders at next week’s U.S. Open at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.

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Steve Stricker celebrates on the 18th green after winning his seventh tournament since his 40th birthday.
(Getty Images)

On top of that, at No. 4, Stricker is now the highest-ranked American player in the world – ahead of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, even.

Wait. Let me rephrase that. At No. 4, Stricker is now the highest-ranked American player in the world – ahead of Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Nick Watney … all of whom are also ahead of No. 15 Tiger Woods.

Tiger is 15th in the world? As the late sports broadcasting icon Bill King once exclaimed after the Oakland Raiders’ "Holy Roller" play in San Diego: "And nothing is real in the world anymore!"

If Tiger is yesterday’s news – despite his tweet Monday that he is sticking with agent Mark Steinberg and parting with IMG, yet another chapter in the "Decline and Fall" – then Stricker is most definitely today’s news.

He played the front nine at Muirfield Village all week in a tidy 20-under, and it was something to behold. His ace Friday was an 8-iron from 166 yards; and an eagle on Saturday was a holed wedge from 114 yards. He looked like a guy playing H-O-R-S-E, calling his shots to fellow competitors like we all used to on the basketball playground.

“Eight iron … one hopper … backspin … from 166 … oh, and you have to have the Arnold Palmer finish, too … "

The Cheesehead Assassin does his thing in the most agreeable of ways, as most all Midwesterners do. These are people who have spent the past 200 years raising barns for neighbors. Conversely, in California, where I grew up, people have spent the past 100 years flipping the bird at anybody who cuts them off in traffic.

Stricker is so gentle, he often weeps after wins. He admitted surprise at his lack of tears, but maybe that’s because he’s getting used to this. With seven wins since he turned 40, Stricker has turned into the new Vijay Singh, the 40-plus guy whom you can’t count out in big moments.

The putting stroke would be the major reason, along with his driving accuracy: he ranked 3rd in the field in both fairways hit and putts stroked at the Memorial. And his two drain-os for par on 16 and 17 on Sunday, from 7 feet and 15 feet, were the stuff of daggers as Stricker tried to hang on to his lead despite a charging Kuchar and Brandt Jobe.

That putter will loom large next week at Congressional. And Stricker himself said: "I feel good with a putter in my hand."

Of course he does. An assassin needs a weapon of choice, after all.

Scorecard of the week

Augusta State d. Georgia, 3-2, NCAA Men’s Division I championship, Karsten Creek GC, Stillwater, Okla.

Forget Milan High’s basketball miracle set to the film "Hoosiers." Somebody dispatch a film crew down to Augusta, Ga., and start work on the golf equivalent: "Jaguars."

Augusta State competes in Division II in all sports except golf, and has now won back-to-back D1 national championships after a thriller over the mighty Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference in Sunday’s title match in Stillwater.

A tiny school slaying giants in consecutive years on a national stage? Who do these guys think they are: Butler basketball?

Admittedly, college golf can be categorized as "mildly obscure," the same way, say, an Icelandic film festival can be categorized as "mildly obscure." And this from a writer who co-wrote the college golf epic "The Last Putt: 2 Teams, 1 Dream and a Freshman Named Tiger," don’t you know. (Cough, free plug for book, cough, cough.)

In the course of writing that book with Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times, we learned the unpublicized dramas that go into a college golf season; the bonding among friends who have known each other since junior golf, the pressures of trying to come through for your teammates, and the finality of seniors heading off into the cold, cruel world, striving for one last moment of amateur glory.

That a small school – in Augusta, no less – defeated powers such as Georgia Tech and host Oklahoma State in match play before dispatching Georgia is a terrific accomplishment, to be celebrated as a triumph of the underdog and of team-bonding at the highest level. Recruiting in college golf has become factory-like: AJGA prodigies choose golf-friendly schools in big conferences, and Oklahoma State, Stanford, UCLA and Georgia are the schools you see hauling in crowns – big budgets, big names, big lights.

Instead, a group of seniors who will live in Jaguar lore – Patrick Reed (who won the clinching match), Henrik Norlander, Mitchell Krywulycz, Carter Newman and Ollie Bengtson – will scatter to graduation, knowing they have accomplished the impossible dream not once, but twice. The same kids defeated Oklahoma State in the 2010 championship match.

I don’t know if coach Josh Gregory – who is also leaving, to go coach his alma mater, SMU, next year – gathered the kids for a rally cry of "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose" before the finalé, but the Augusta State story sure rattled some East Dillon High thoughts for "Friday Night Lights" fans.

Or, if you’re not an "FNL" fan, how about just imagining one of the players telling his fellow Jaguars: "Let’s go out there and win one for all the small schools who never had a chance to get here." Somewhere, Gene Hackman beams with pride.

Mulligan of the week

Just six months ago, Graeme McDowell, the eminently likable Northern Irishman, was living the dream. Almost literally.

McDowell made a light-hearted YouTube video that treated his 2010 golf season, highlighted by a U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach, the winning putt in the Ryder Cup and outdueling Tiger at the Chevron Challenge, as a dream, complete with McDowell waking up in a bed next to the trophies. Laughs all around.

Flash forward six months to last weekend’s European Tour Wales Open at the very same Celtic Manor where McDowell won the Ryder Cup for Europe.

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A messy 12th hole on Saturday left Graeme McDowell feeling sour.
(AP)

The golf gods, they don’t do dreams 24/7/365, as I was just saying to my good pal Tiger Woods. They do, however, do nightmares.

So there was McDowell, in the hunt for a Wales Open title – until Saturday dawned. The Ulsterman imploded in the third round, and his unsightly 81 was highlighted on the 12th hole, in which he had to chip up a small hill to a plateau green.

It’s a delicate chip, made more painfully delicate when McDowell chipped up the hill … and saw his golf ball return down the hill to his feet. Worse, McDowell learned that painfully delicate can become excruciatingly delicate when his second chip went up the hill and – like Jill, of Jack and Jill fame – came tumbling down, again.

Yes, it took three chips for McDowell to get his golf ball 10 yards up a hill. For good measure, he three-whipped the green, too. Talk about a slow burn to golf insanity: McDowell admitted after the round that mental demons are becoming an issue for him, which is not your traditional path to defending a major title.

The score on No. 8 was a quadruple-bogey, a fast pass in the express lane to an 81, and enough for us to say: Let’s go back out to No. 12 greenside at Celtic Manor and give that man a mulligan!

Broadcast moment of the week

"Jack, how did you maintain your game as a young amateur living in an area of the country where you couldn’t play golf year-round?" – Jim Nantz, CBS, asking Jack Nicklaus about golf in Ohio.

"I really didn’t, Jim. I let it go in the winter time. And it was kind of a relief. I wanted to play other sports, do other things." – Jack Nicklaus.

And with that simple exchange, the greatest golf champion of all time undermined an entire generation of over-parenting parents.

Somewhere along the way in this nation’s arc, parents decided to stop letting kids have fun playing a sport for each season, and instead maniacally forced kids to focus on one sport, and one sport only. The result has been the death of the three-sport star in your local high school community and a never-ending workload of practice, travel, more practice and more travel – and, sadly, burnout – for many aspiring young athletes.

And yes, I know there is evidence to support the theory that repetition builds excellence, that Malcolm Gladwell wrote "Outliers" to tell us the "10,000 Hour Rule" is the key to success, that playing or practicing a craft for 10K hours will result in the Beatles, or Bill Gates. Fair enough. That’s one way to go.

What is also evident is that Jack Nicklaus played three sports growing up, was an All-State basketball player in Ohio, and an accomplished football player as well.

Oh, and he’s won more golf majors than anyone.

No, not every athlete is Jack Nicklaus. Then again, not every athlete who has excised every other sport but one has become great at his or her chosen sport, either. Let’s put it this way: Nicklaus’ revelation that life and sport can be a varied tapestry was a blast of fresh air in a country over-concentrating on hyper-achievement, and not always getting it.

Where do we go from here?

Like a host setting up a house for a huge keg party, the St. Jude Classic in Memphis is just a warm-up act for Congressional’s U.S. Open. The Cheesehead Assassin will not be there, so the field can come out and play without fear of a Stricker attack. No Matt Kuchar, or Dustin Johnson or Phil Mickelson, either. Lee Westwood, the beneficiary of the Robert Garrigus Sweaty Pants Meltdown of 2010, will be on hand to defend.

A special note: Rory McIlroy won’t be there, either. The lad is doing some good. He’s flying to Haiti to raise awareness for UNICEF and disaster relief, and will spend two days there. That’s above and beyond, a week before a major. Good kid, Rors.