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Shot at history puts Stricker's streak at John Deere in the spotlight

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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Naturally, the tournament is publicizing Stricker's attempt for a four-peat.  
Naturally, the tournament is publicizing Stricker's attempt for a four-peat.    

Usually, when Steve Stricker is perched this high off the ground, atop some sort of pole, it's in some quiet locale, where he hopes that absolutely no living thing looks up and notices him.

Meaning, up in a tree, parked in a deer stand, executing completely different sorts of shots.

Not this week, when Stricker's image is plastered on billboards in the Silvis, Ill., area, to promote what could soon result in one of the rarest accomplishments in PGA Tour lore.

This week, the nicest guy in the game is trying to become the fifth man in the history of the sport to win four consecutive times at the same event, which in this case, is at a Midwestern fixture called the John Deere Classic.

Rightfully quick to latch on to an irresistibly catchy marketing opportunity, Deere tournament director Clair Peterson has pitched this week's flirtation with history as the "Stricker Slam," and as an alumnus of University of Illinois, situated 150 miles down the road, it's a rubber-necking attention-getter.

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Headline: Stricker attempts to put the quad in Quad Cities.

We're not trying to overemphasize the impact of a potential victory on Sunday, but it's probably worth noting that five golfers have amassed a career Grand Slam, but only four guys have ever won the same tournament four times in succession. It just doesn't happen often.

Indeed, depending on how much you want to stretch your calendar and credulity, it goes back to the 19th century and Young Tom Morris, who won four British Opens in succession in a run that began in 1868. OK, so the PGA Tour was still a comical hundred years from forming, but the circuit counts Tom's wins as official.

If nothing else, it puts what lies ahead for Stricker in context by framing what has happened behind him. The others to win the same tournament in four successive tries are just as notable: Hall of Famers and immortals Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and ultimate event serial killer Tiger Woods, who actually accomplished it twice, at Bay Hill and Torrey Pines. Stricker has had his cap spun around by the company he's keeping and the feats he's approaching.

"To tell you the truth, me winning the three in a row is, I don't know where the time has gone, to tell you the truth," he said Wednesday.

Same here, but the ball, on the other hand, has gone squarely in the hole. To think that Peterson had to recruit Stricker for months to get him to show up at the first of his Deere streak four years back -- the Wisconsin native had skipped it in 2007-08 -- and when Peterson secured a commitment, he freely admitted that one thought kept clanging around in his head.

"Now, if Steve can just win, he'll have to come back and play next year, too," Peterson recalled, laughing.

They can't get rid of the guy now, for obvious reasons. Since the winning streak started in 2009, Stricker has a scoring average at TPC Deere Run of 65.3 strokes, which is somewhere close to incomprehensible for a guy who plays a "boring" brand of golf.

American compatriot Zach Johnson won the Texas Open two years in succession, and understands how tough it is to win one in a row, if you will, much less three.

"Just because there's so much talent and depth, and parity, I guess, in our sport," Johnson said Wednesday. "It's nothing more than that. It's hard to win any week, but to win three times in a row at the same venue back-to-back is extremely difficult.

"His chances of winning this week, I don't have any idea, but it wouldn't surprise me again. He grew up in the Midwest. He likes these types of golf courses, these style of greens, and he plays pretty monotonous, boring golf -- and that's kind of the golf I like to play, so it does not surprise me what he's done."

Rest assured, nobody was snoozing during last year's final round. Two strokes down with as many holes to play, Stricker birdied the 17th, and when rookie leader Kyle Stanley bogeyed the 18th one hole ahead of him, Stricker had his opening. Sort of.

He knocked his tee shot into a fairway bunker, drew a hellacious lie, and had to stand on the edge of the lip, with the ball several inches below his feet. He then hit what many believed to be the best clutch shot of the 2011 season, turning a potential bogey into an improbable winning birdie that electrified the partisan crowd. After running in the 25-footer to win, the typically reserved Stricker came a little unglued, a moment that was captured in the billboard photo that dots the area.

"It was just kind of a fairytale dream finish for me," Stricker said.

In typical Stricker fashion, as he and a slew of players were flying across the Atlantic on a charter to the British Open later that night, he sought out Stanley and apologized for pulling the rug out from under him. Stanley, back to play this year, confirmed the story Wednesday morning.

"He did when we landed," Stanley said, "but he had nothing to be sorry for."

That sums up how fans and tournament officials felt. Stricker has been the unreserved Deere show pony and is the top-ranked man in the field this week at world No. 13.

The forever-grounded Wisconsin native, who rebuilt his game from the brink of oblivion to become one of the most consistent players in the game, hardly seems stressed about the task ahead.

"I can take a lot of pride and joy away from what's happened here over the years," he said. "Maybe that's why I'm a little bit more relaxed, is that I've had a great run here. You know, I'm going to try like mad to try to do it again. But I'm comfortable where I'm at, you know, and will take it from there and try to play my best."

His best has been unbelievable at Deere Run. He is breathing rarefied air, to be sure. Over the past 32 years, the only player other than Woods to win the same event three years in succession is Stuart Appleby, who won the season opener in Hawaii thrice starting in 2004. Curiously, Stricker won that same title six months ago to start the 2012 season. The otherworldly Woods has won the same title three or more successive times at a staggering six different tournaments.

Woods, who played two rounds alongside Stricker last week, delivered a characteristically blunt pep talk to his frequent Ryder Cup pairings partner about the task ahead.

"In his own little way -- I think we all know what his way is -- he told me to get it done," Stricker said with a grin. "He said some nice things, but also made a point -- he threw me a jab, saying only one of us has won four tournaments in a row. So he gets his point across, but yet he was really nice and tried to provide some support for me to do it again."

Even as the top-ranked player in the field, the odds of pulling off a foursome feel somewhat remote. He's the favorite at 13/2 over Johnson, who is listed at 12/1.

It has been an uneven year for Stricker, outside of the victory at the Kapalua opener. Now 45, he has had some troubles with his trusty putter and has amassed one top-10 finish in his seven starts since March. On the plus side, he made the ballot for the World Golf Hall of Fame and has won at least one tour event for six consecutive years. Again, on the minus side, his last two agents at IMG have left the company, in a span of three months. There's a bobblehead doll of him circulating this week, too.

How any of that will affect him this week, if at all, is part of the weekly undercurrent. Actually, given the historical significance of what a fourth victory at Deere Run would mean, Stricker is really the only event plotline at the moment.

Can he extend his entertaining run as the Deere polesitter -- be it at the top of the scoreboard, a billboard or a deer stand? Maybe so, for those who read tea leaves.

"I love to deer hunt, and first thing I see when I walk in from the parking lot every day is this big huge deer out in front of the clubhouse," Stricker laughed.

"I kind of chuckled at it this morning, saying that if a tournament was meant for me to win, it would be something like this, right here in the Midwest; John Deere people with that Midwestern value, down-home people, and same here in the Quad Cities area, too."

Consecutive Tournament Wins
4 Tom Morris Jr. British Open 1868-70,1872
4 Walter Hagen PGA Championship 1924-1927
4 Gene Sarazen Miami Open 1926,1928-30
4 Tiger Woods Bay Hill Invitational/td> 2000-2003
4 Tiger Woods Buick Invitational 2005-2008
3 Jamie Anderson British Open 1877-1879
3 Robert Ferguson British Open 1880-1882
3 Willie Anderson U.S. Open 1903-1905
3 Walter Hagan Metropolitan Open 1916,1919-1920
3 Gene Sarazen Miami Beach Open 1927-1929
3 Henry Picard Tournament of the Gardens 1935-1937
3 Ralph Guldahl Western Open 1933-1938
3 Ben Hogan Land of the Sky Open 1940-1942
3 Gene Littler Tournament of Champions 1955-1957
3 Billy Casper Portland Open 1959-1961
3 Arnold Palmer Texas Open 1960-1962
3 Arnold Palmer Phoenix Open 1961-1963
3 Jack Nicklaus Disney World Golf Classic 1971-1973
3 Johnny Miller Tuscon Open 1974-1976
3 Tom Watson Byron Nelson Classic 1978-1980
3 Tiger Woods Memorial Tournament 1999-2001
3 Tiger Woods WGC-NEC Invitational 1999-2001
3 Stuart Appleby Merecedes Championships 2004-2006
3 Tiger Woods WGC-Bridgestone Invitational 2005-2007
3 Tiger Woods WGC-CA Championship 2005-2007
3 Steve Stricker John Deere Classic 2009-2011
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