With Stricker's win at Muirfield, Americans finally make noise

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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DUBLIN, Ohio -- Englishman Brian Davis is apparently hedging his bets.

A veteran who has played both major tours but has settled in nicely in the States, where he has lived for several years, Davis was tossing autographed golf balls into the giddy gallery after signing his card Sunday at the Memorial Tournament.

There were five bits of colored ink on the balls: A manufacturer's logo, the number, his autograph in black ink ... plus the flags of both England and the United States.

Of course, he's under no obligation to appease folks on both sides of the Atlantic, and neither are we. In fact, we're so relieved by Steve Stricker's victory against a field of heavy firepower, which finally staunched the national bleeding, that euphoria has set in. Either that, or it's intoxication from watching Stricker weave across the finish line.

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Maybe we're hyperventilating based on the Americana ties of the tournament's name and its date on the holiday calendar, but I think I just spotted the Europeans packing up at Plymouth Rock and sailing back to England.

Forget the Union Jack -- a white flag has been waved. The Yanks are finally back at the fore.

"Even if I had been really sharp with my short game," world No. 1 Luke Donald said a few hours before the round ended, "it would have been tough to catch [Stricker]."

Hey, many experts have been saying the current European dominance is purely cyclical, right? Maybe the cycle has completed its spin. It's hard to type these words with my tongue spot-welded to my cheek, but opportunities to blow the American horns have been rare lately.

All four majors and the Players Championship are currently held by international players, two by European players. Sure, we're intentionally over-reaching with the jingoistic jingle, but we might as well enjoy the ride.

An established Yank won a prestigious tournament, an event with six of the top 10 players in the world ranking and 15 of the top 25. It's one of the biggest invitationals of the year. We twisted a few arms to get the players feeling good about it, too, with mixed success.

"The Americans, I think we're playing really good right now," said Dustin Johnson, a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. "The Euros are tough -- a lot of good players and they have played well in the majors.

"One of us is going to have to step up and get a 'W' in the U.S. Open."

Here, here. Until then, all together now, you scions of Uncle Sam, let's start the chant: We're No. 4! We're No. 4!

That's where Stricker, 44, climbed after winning at Muirfield Village, making him the top-ranked American in the world ranking for the first time in his career. It was his 10th career victory, and the first this season for a player known for the past few seasons for his maddening consistency. The Wisconsin native is the Big Cheese.

"He drives it straight," Johnson said, "and putts the @#$% out of it."

That'll usually work.

After an overnight rain softened Muirfield Village and took away much of its teeth, and an army of players were throwing around birdies, but Stricker never much blinked. He shot 30 on the front nine -- he played that side of the course in 20 under for the week -- and held them at bay.

"He's a heck of a player," said Phil Mickelson, who started the week at world No. 4 and was passed. "When he gets it going, you give him greens and putting surfaces as smooth and as pure as these, he's really tough to beat."

Stricker wasn't the lone guy with Stars and Stripes next to his name in the PGA Tour computer. In fact, in what's become something of a rarity, the American contingent owned the scoreboard all week, with only the occasional international player, like world No. 6 Rory McIlroy, making a run at the top.

In memorable fashion, Stricker took the lead Friday with an ace on his 35th hole, playing the front nine in a cumulative 20 under for the week. Tournament host Jack Nicklaus took a look at what Stricker was doing to his vaunted hometown layout at one point and said: "We've had very few years when it's been windless and rainless."

As to the latter, there was a delay 2:34 on the back nine Sunday as thunderstorms threatened to zap the locals, prompting a suspension of play. Despite several sloppy shots after play resumed, Stricker wavered but didn't fold, even though he had six holes left to navigate.

Whenever Stricker started to wobble, he executed impressive clutch shots, saving pars on the par-3s at Nos. 12 and 16, both from the bunker. On the latter, he made a huge 16-footer to salvage par when his lead had been cut to two shots. It was twice the length of any putt he had made on the back-nine all week. He salvaged another par from a greenside bunker on the 17th for good measure.

It was excruciating, entertaining stuff regardless of what nation was stamped on the passport. In five of the past six weeks, the 54-hole leader on the PGA Tour hadn't held on to win. Last week, Ryuji Imada was three shots up with four to play and didn't win. Stricker needed a seatbelt, but got it done.

So, after the math was mercifully completed, 14 of the top 17 spots were manned by Americans, with Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy moving up to fifth, and Australia's John Senden and Donald finishing T7. Stricker, quiet much of the year (like most of the top-tier Americans), won for the sixth time since the start of the 2009 season.

Maybe there's hope for the grizzled American guard after all. It was Stricker's seventh win in his 40s, the same decade that Jim Furyk and Mickelson occupy. Maybe the American contingent can squeeze a few more years out of the decorated trio after all.

When it was noted that Stricker had ascended to the top slot among American players, he all but shook his head, laughed, then noted that the Yanks might be ready for a counter-assault.

"Shocking," he said, smiling. "I don't know what my thoughts are. The Europeans are playing some good golf, but we know who the top guys are and they're a little off their game right now."

Maybe he's right, but maybe he's delusional. Either way, it's becoming a bit more fun for folks on this side of the Pond to track, isn't it?

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