British Open preview: Stricker, Wilson look for improvements
The British Open began early this morning in England, and the state of Wisconsin is represented by two usual suspects in Madison's Steve Stricker and Menomonee Falls native Mark Wilson. The difference between this tournament and the year's first two major championships is that this time, neither is being considered even a dark horse.
Back in April, both players had to be considered candidates to win The Masters. Both had won tournaments, both were ranked in the top 25 in the world, and it seemed like their games were on an upward trajectory after several top 10 finishes.
Neither played particularly well, setting in motion a downward turn in play leading into June's U.S. Open. At that point, only Stricker was considered even a dark horse, based more on his previous history in the tournament and at The Olympic Club.
He finished tied for 15th, and was one bad round away from truly contending.
Now, the pair head to Royal Lytham and St. Annes in Lancashire, England under the radar despite the fact that the last 15 major championships have produced 15 different champions, the last nine of which are first-time winners.
Perhaps that bodes well for the 46-year-old Stricker, who is coming off a tie for fifth at the John Deere Classic, and the 37-year-old Wilson. Neither has won a major.
As has been the case for the last several years, Stricker would be considered the favorite of the pair in a major championship. Despite his advancing age, and his acknowledgement that the window for him is closing in majors, the world's 14th-ranked player has been a factor of late overseas with two top 10s and three top 12s in the last five years.
Madison resident and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North will be part of the ESPN and ABC team covering the British Open and says that Stricker's age – especially on a links course – will not be a factor.
"Forty-six (years old today) - you've seen an awful lot of players play awfully, awfully well for another four, five years," North said. "What (Tom) Watson did (in 2009). The golf ball doesn't know how old you. If you can still drive it in the fairway and still hit quality shots and your nerves are still good there's no reason you can play late into your career. Tom's performance at Turnberry a few years ago is a perfect example. If you believe you can do it and you can execute the shots, which he could do there because it wasn't such a long course playing wise, he was very competitive. We all watched that and we all went crazy and we all know deep in our hearts he should have won."
Stricker has played Royal Lytham and St. Annes twice, finishing tied for 22nd in 1996 and tying for 42nd in 2001. His familiarity with the course and his renewed confidence on the greens also bodes well.
"I've been working hard on my putting. It's getting better," Stricker said during the John Deere Classic. "I hit better putts last week; hitting some better putts this week. Feel like some of my confidence so coming back. I'm standing up over putts thinking that I got a good opportunity to make 'em. Even from 20 to 30-feet I feel like I can make one. So that's good sign. Moving in the right direction and just continue to go to the putting green and work on the things I been working on."
This year the course will play slightly different as it did in 1996 and 2001, as heavy rains have pounded England all summer. The rough is long, and the fairways and greens will be soft.
That doesn't concern Stricker, however.
"That's what's exciting for me," he said. "I feel like I can go to any venue that we play and have the opportunity to win or at least have a good tournament and be in contention, whatever. No, I don't feel like one style suits me better. Like you said, I had it super low at Bob Hope before and not playing well the last day. I shot low here. Hawaii I've shot low. I've put some low numbers up. And then I've also had some good U.S. Open's on courses that are very tough where par is a good score. And that's exciting, being able to come to a place and feel like it doesn't really matter. I feel that way, that I can adapt to the style or the course that we're playing."
With 205 bunkers sprinkled all over the course, driving will be at a premium. Stricker begins the week 41st on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy and 12th in scrambling from off the green. Wilson has been even better off the tee, coming in ninth in driving accuracy.
Since winning the Humana Challenge in January, his fifth PGA Tour title in less than five years, Wilson has struggled outside of a third place finish in the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February. He made the cut at last week's John Deere Classic and broke 70 in a round for the first time since April. He tied for 45th, but it was a step forward from a three-month, five-tournament stretch where he missed three cuts and tied for 66th in two other events.
Wilson's struggles since February have dropped him from No. 25 in the world to No. 43, and this is his second Open Championship. The slower conditions and premium on ball striking may allow him to not only make his first major cut of the season, but contend.
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