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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Waste Management Phoenix Open includes five of the top 10 players in the world, but in the first round they were all beaten by the 460th -ranked player, a PGA Tour Champions regular who thought his days of whipping up on these young whippersnappers were over.
That old timer would be none other than U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, who shot six-under 65, the lowest score of the afternoon wave at TPC Scottsdale, and proved he’s not just here to scout potential players for his 12-man side later this year.
“I made some putts,” he said. “Felt like the old Steve Stricker. I am old, but I don’t feel 53 or 4. I feel like I still have a little bit of game left in me.”
Stricker, who turns 54 later this month and won the last of his 12 PGA Tour titles in 2012, sits in fifth place after the opening round, two strokes behind Matthew NeSmith and Mark Hubbard.
“I don’t know if I feel like I belong anymore, to be quite honest,” Stricker said.
Have you seen the leaderboard, he was asked by one reporter.
“Yeah, I know. These guys, they all hit it 300 plus, 320s, 330s, and I’m just trying to get it in the fairway and get it up to 280,” Stricker said.
Stricker thought he’d be put out to pasture this year and be a full-time Champions tour pro, but the Ryder Cup postponement due to the global pandemic changed his plans. He’s still playing against the young bucks—this is his third Tour event in a row—so that he can keep an eye on his potential players. That included a practice round with Patrick Cantlay at the American Express and conversations with Patrick Reed at the Farmers Insurance Open and Justin Thomas this week.
Stricker’s wife Nicki was on the bag and their kids followed along making it a family affair. It didn’t hurt that Stricker was also grouped with fellow 50-something and pal Jerry Kelly and European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington.
“Walking off the first tee I said, ‘Paddy, we got two Badgers against you today. He was like, ‘Well, I need to get used to that I guess.’ So, he knows what’s coming when he comes there in September,” Stricker said of Whistling Straits, site of the biennial matches.
As he walked off the 18th green, he took a long glance at the scoreboard and couldn’t help but notice that his name was above the likes of Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Webb Simpson, and Thomas, who all have Ryder Cup experience, and Euro stars Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy.
“I love to watch who is playing well and look for potential players on the Ryder Cup team, friends, how they’re playing. Just get the lay of it. I study it a lot it seems like nowadays just trying to get a feel for what’s going on and how guys are playing,” he said. “It was good to see my name up there on the top, and the challenge will be to come out tomorrow and try to keep that ball rolling.”
His trusty putter, an Odyssey White Hot putter he’s used for more than 20 years, decided to behave and he made seven birdies against just one bogey to shoot the lowest score by a 50+ year-old golfer in the Phoenix Open since Tom Lehman in 2011.
Hubbard, who was followed by his pregnant wife, straightened out his putter, too. On his way to a forgettable round of 76 and a missed cut at the American Express two weeks ago, Hubbard used an unconventional putting technique, extending his right arm and wrapping his pinky finger around the lower portion of his shaft for support on a 5-foot putt. Hubbard said the maneuver was coined “the snail” during his days at San Jose State. When asked what his teammates thought of his technique, he said, “They all know I’m an idiot, so they just expect it from me.”
Hubbard said it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that the snail would make an encore performance this week.
“We were joking on 16 that if I had hit it to a tap-in’s length that I would have had to have done it,” he said. “It drew a little more at the end, so I had five feet and it was kind of outside that range. But who knows, we might break it out this week.”
Hubbard finished with a flurry of birdies, five in his last six holes, to shoot his lowest round of his career after making a slight swing adjustment.
“I think earlier in the day I was kind of whipping it a little inside, so I kind of straightened my takeaway a little bit, and that kind of got things in motion, and I putted pretty good all day,” he said.
Matthew NeSmith plays his second shot at the second hole during the first round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic/USA Today Network)
NeSmith went out early and carded six birdies and an eagle when he holed a bunker shot at No. 13. He hit 16 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. NeSmith is winless on Tour and doesn’t need to be reminded that a victory would earn him an invite to the Masters.
He grew up less than 20 minutes from famed Augusta National Golf Club, just across the border in South Carolina and his father was a part-time caddie there. He has fond memories of attending the tournament as a kid.
“I’d try to get my dad to let me skip school on Thursday and Friday to watch it when we were going,” he said.
Nate Lashley, who attended University of Arizona and makes his home in Scottsdale, is one stroke back along with Same Burns after shooting 64s. Spieth ranked second in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting en route to signing for 4-under 67. That was a stroke better than Koepka, the 2015 Phoenix Open champion, who posted 3-under 68, his lowest opening-round score since last year’s PGA Championship. Koepka, who is trying to end a streak of three straight missed cuts, made 149 feet of putts, his most in a single round since 2018.
Rahm, an Arizona State alum, tied Koepka with 68, while McIlroy overcame a slow start and Thomas took a costly triple-bogey 7 at No. 17 as both opened with 1-under 70. Simpson, the defending champion, struggled to 2-over 73 as did Fowler, the 2019 champion, who is in danger of missing the cut after shooting 74.
Asked what Stricker would say to Team USA vets such as Xander Schauffele, who shot 66, Fowler, Spieth, Koepka, Thomas and Simpson, who are all looking up at The Captain’s name on the leaderboard, he said, “Well, it’s only one round. But it shows that I’m still out here trying to compete with them, trying to play, trying to beat them.”
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