Friday, July 20, 2012

Open Champ Part 4

Steve Stricker suffered a damaging blow to his golf equipment and psyche when his Titleist 909 driver developed a crack in the head on Tuesday during a practice round. The club simply wore out after thousands of drives impacted the face. Stricker admitted that sooner or later he figured this would happen, just not this week. There is nothing worse for the 14th ranked player in the world than to have something as catastrophic as this happen hours before a major championship begins.
Stricker is old school. His driver was five years old and he had won $13 million with it during that time span. While most golfers at any level are all about the latest and greatest in technology, Steve is more about “if it works stick with it”. You might find it interesting to know that Stricker not only was using a driver that was a couple of generations old, but he also uses Titleist Pro V1 balls that are of the same vintage as his driver was.
So, Tuesday night and all day Wednesday, he had the full attention of the Titleist Tour staff and Stricker tested all kinds of shaft options in a new Titleist 913 driver model that won’t be released to the public until later this fall. He messed primarily with the loft adjustments and settled in on a neutral position.
When Stricker gets it going sideways, it goes left. He lost the John Deere Classic last week when he hooked a couple of drives late in the final round. Steve is a player who has to feel comfortable starting his driver down the right side of the fairway and using a natural release of his hands to draw, or slightly hook the ball.
Royal Lytham can be a nervous driving course for players because of the 206 bunkers that it has. Part of Stricker’s practice round strategy was to figure out what holes to hit driver, three wood or even a hybrid off the tee to manipulate over or short of the treacherous fairway bunkers at Lytham.
The reason the fairway bunkers are avoidable is because of their steep faces which feature buried sod layers stacked upon each other. Many times the ball will find the front of the bunker and the only shot a player has is to take a sand wedge and pop the shot over the lip of the trap and back into play. It takes some pretty miraculous work to save a par from Lytham’s fairway bunkers.
Stricker is a classic grinder on the golf course. He shows little emotion and is normally unflappable even in the toughest of times. But, losing his trusted driver the week of a major championship will test even somebody with Stricker’s resolve. It was apparent on the back nine at Lytham on Thursday.
The 13th hole is a 355 yard, par four. He was two under par heading into the final six holes on Lytham’s back nine. Stricker had debated all week on what club to hit off the tee. He picked the three wood and laced a shot down the left side of the fairway in perfect position. His next shot was a wedge that one hopped right in the bottom of the hole for an eagle 2. The shot lifted him to 4th place on the leaderboard and a score of four under par.
The 14th hole is a 444 yard hole that played into the wind on Thursday. With all of the momentum on his side, Stricker curiously pulled out his three wood and fanned his tee shot right into the fescue rough. It was a very conservative play for Stricker who had hit his new driver well all day.
Faced with a difficult lie, Stricker’s only option was to wedge the ball back into the fairway. As he hit the shot his club face closed down when it got into the deep rough and he yanked the ball across the fairway into a Lytham bunker. His ball finished well into the face and he was forced to take a lob wedge and advance it a few yards out of the bunker. Stricker wound up lipping out his bogey putt and walked off the green at two under par for the tournament- losing the two strokes he had minutes earlier made up with the eagle.
As I watched him play the 14th I had to wonder if the old driver had been in the bag would he have hit it off the tee instead of the three wood? Would the outcome have been different? To Steve’s credit he played the final four holes one under par and finished with a 67. But, it just goes to show that even the greatest players in the world do some of the same things that all golfers do.
On an unrelated note, players such as Stricker try to create a comfortable set of surroundings during an Open Championship week. Cultural differences can make the eating somewhat challenging for Americans who travel abroad.
Steve is represented by the International Management Group (IMG). The sports agency rents a house this week in Lytham and when their players get ready to eat dinner they head to the IMG house. A chef is standing by to fix the players whatever they want for dinner.
Some players travel with their families at the Open Championship. Stricker is here without his wife and kids, who are back in Wisconsin. His support staff is in the form of Don Edwards, a good friend and ex-college teammate at the University of Illinois. While these guys have their own hotel rooms, they travel to the course together and spend nearly every waking hour of the day with each other. These players need a sounding board and confidant during a week like this.
Stricker, Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey and Fredrick Jacobson are all staying at the same hotel that I am. These players can be seen working out in the hotel fitness room early in the morning or late in the day depending on their tee times. Even with the rigors of major championship golf they find time to stay in their routines..
There is a lot at stake this week at Royal Lytham. Majors define careers and this year they will play a huge part in determining who represents the U.S. and Europe in the Ryder Cup. Guys like Stricker are doing whatever they can to prepare and try to seize the moment.
It’s an interesting week and hopefully you have a better understanding of what goes on. 

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