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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – O Captain! My Captain!
Players such as Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka, who have ambitions of playing on Team USA later this year, should be taking to their chairs like in the movie “Dead Poets Society,” and chanting their allegiance.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker is taking the words of Robin Williams’s famous character in that flick to heart and seizing the day at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. For much of the day, Stricker seized the lead, shooting 5-under 66 on a chilly morning to climb to 11-under 131 at TPC Scottsdale and share the top spot with Keegan Bradley.
“This is why we’re here, to play at this stage, at this level,” said Stricker.
The last @RyderCupUSA captain to win on the PGA Tour the same year he captained the team was Arnold Palmer in 1963. Palmer won 7 times that season on Tour.
He was also the last playing captain for either side at the Ryder Cup.
Steve Stricker (-11) leads the U.S. team this year.
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) February 5, 2021
Tom Brady isn’t the only grizzled veteran seeking another title this Sunday. Stricker, who last won on the PGA Tour in 2012 and turns 54 later this month, is attempting to shatter Sam Snead’s 56-year-old record as the oldest winner on Tour at age 52, 10 months, eight days when he won in Greensboro in 1965. Stricker opened with 6-under 65 on Thursday and heard from several pros that evening, including Brandt Snedeker.
“Snedeker is in my kitchen saying you need to smile, you’re leading the tournament, why aren’t you smiling?” Stricker said. “It was only one round. So, I knew today was an important day to come out and try to back that one up that I did yesterday.”
Stricker had reason to smile on Friday morning. He birdied all three of the par-5s at TPC Scottsdale and drained a 14-foot birdie putt at No. 11, his longest putt of the day. Stricker was bogey-free for the day until he knocked his approach into the front greenside bunker and failed to get up and down. It’s the first time he opened a tournament with consecutive rounds of 66 or better since 2011. Color Billy Horschel, who shot 68, impressed with Stricker’s 36-hole performance.
“I was like, man, he turned back the clock this week a little bit,” Horschel said. “He’s still got a lot of game. He still competes really well. It’s not shocking to see.”
Stricker is mixing in more starts on the PGA Tour this season to scout potential U.S. Ryder Cup participants, along with his play on PGA Tour Champions, where he is the host of the American Family Championship in his native Wisconsin, and made the cut last week at the Farmers Insurance Open, one of the longest layouts on Tour. He’s beating all of his potential players as well as his opposing captain Padraig Harrington and Euro stalwarts John Rahm and Rory McIlroy.
“He’s realizing that he’s not the shortest guy out here and when he was playing at his best he wasn’t the longest guy out here either,” said wife Nicki, who is on the bag this week for her husband. “He’s just good at doing what he does well and not worrying about anything else and anyone else.”
Stricker credited a change in his putter setup for his hot hand with the shortstick. Always one of the best putters in the game, Stricker considered benching his Odyssey White Hot gamer, which has been in the bag for all but a dozen rounds, he figured, in the last 20+ years. He’s had it re-shafted and replaced the insert a few years ago to keep it in his bag, but went so far as to ask equipment reps for some different models of late to test.
“I will roll them on the green and they will feel pretty good but ultimately I put that old one back in there,” he said.
That old putter and that old guy are doing just fine through 36 holes. But Saturday’s have been a struggle for Stricker of late – he shot 77 last week at Torrey Pines – and so tomorrow it will be important for him to get off to a quick start if he’s going to make a run at his 13th Tour title and becoming the first golfer age 50 and older to win since 51-year-old Davis Love III at the 2015 Wyndham Championship.
“I know it’s a long shot,” he said. “I’ve got to play my very best, just like anybody else does out here. But you know, I’ve been there. I’ve won a few times out on this Tour and I know what it takes, although it’s been a while. It would be fun to see how I handle it if I do get that opportunity.”