Should Tiger Woods pitch his shoulders forward to settle his fifth green jacket across his back on Sunday evening in the Georgia gloaming, Steve Stricker might be the first non-member he embraces at Augusta National Golf Club.
Since winning the 2005 Masters Tournament – at the time his third green jacket in five years – Woods has come agonizingly close to winning that elusive fifth. He has finished sixth or better six times the last seven years, a testament to his talent and knowledge of the course, but he has fallen short due in large part to his putter.
The same can be said in his other four flirtations with a 15th major championship since his last victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, but now it seems that Woods has regained the stroke that made him the most dominant golfer the world has ever seen.
Should that translate to Augusta’s slick greens and a victory, that green jacket might need to make a pit stop in Madison.
Though Woods won in his first start of the 2013 season at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Jan. 27, he followed that up with an opening round loss in the WGC-Accenture Match Play, and backed that up with a tie for 37th at The Honda Classic.
Then, on the putting green at the TPC Blue Monster in Doral, Fla. during the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Woods received an impromptu 45-minute lesson from the 46-year-old Stricker. The end result? A four shot victory over none other than the Madison resident.
"I've been putting at home and just still hadn't felt right," Woods said after his win at Doral.
"I still was a little bit off. But to have ‘Stricks’ help me out like that, just like he always does. He's been a great friend. We tend to help each other out with our putting. I know what he looks like when he putts his best and vice versa. He basically got me in the same position that I was at Torrey, the body position. So once he put me in there where I felt comfortable, I said, well, this is not too foreign; this is what I was a month or so ago and I started rolling it and it felt really, really good. I just basically carried it through the entire week."
Woods carried that momentum through to his next start at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he won again with an excellent week on the greens.
"Whatever he says, I'm going to do," Woods said of Stricker "He's one of the best putters that's ever lived."
Stricker, who has never won a major championship, will be in the field with Woods at Augusta National this week. He is enjoying a reduced playing schedule, saying at the beginning of the year he would only commit to 11 tournaments.
The extended layoffs haven’t hurt him thus far, as he nearly defended his title at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January, finishing second. He then tied for fifth at the match play, followed by the runner-up finish to Woods at the WGC-Cadillac. He slipped a bit at the Shell Houston Open, tying for 38th.
Including the Masters this week, where Stricker has just two top 10 finishes in 12 starts since 1996, he has six tournaments left on his schedule. He has allowed himself some wiggle room however, should he be close to making the Presidents Cup team or winning the FedEx Cup.
"I always have come out and done fairly well when I'm fresh, and whether that's a mental thing, you know, I don't know," he said at Doral. "I feel like I'm a little bit easier on myself, I'm fresher mentally. I feel like there's a little more bounce in my step.
"I don't know if everybody could do it because they weren't born and grew up in the Midwest, you know, and I think like Jerry Kelly and I and other guys who live in cold climates, you're forced to do it. So you learn to adapt and go from there."
As for winning that elusive major championship, Stricker is cognizant that the window for winning one has nearly closed.
"If they don't go well for me, it really doesn't matter," he said of the majors. "You know, that's my thinking lately. I'm out here to have fun, compete. If I play well, so be it. I anticipate playing well. I feel like I should play well, but if I don't, you know what? I go home and spend some time at home. It's taken some of the pressure off of me, I think."
The pressure this week is squarely on the shoulders of Woods, once again the world’s top ranked player. In his dogged pursuit of Nicklaus’ 18 majors, Woods has seen his putter betray him more than anything else when it counted.
Perhaps now, he is feeling more like the player who won six majors from 2005 through the first half of 2008 than the one who has gone without since then.
"I'm getting there. I'm getting there," Woods said following his win at Bay Hill. "I'm very pleased that some of the shots that I struggled with last year are now strengths. You know, one of the things that we need to continue to work on is getting it more refined. Because my good ones are really good. Just making sure the bad ones aren't that bad, whether it's a driver, 3-wood, long-iron, wedge, whatever it is, that I'm missing the ball in the correct spots. That's getting way better. Still continue to improve and clean up my short game."
Stricker has had a big role in that cleanup of late, especially on the greens.
"Watching him on TV over the years, back in 2000, 2001, I played with him in'97; and just watching him then, I've always liked the way he putts it," Stricker said. "We've talked a lot about it over the years. We have the same ideas - although we do different things to get it there, we have the same principles I think. He's open to hearing what I have to say sometimes, which is flattering I guess to me. We try to help each other out and he's helped me out a bunch of times, too.
"Like I've always said, it's great for our sport, it's great for our game, brings a lot of attention to our sport every time he's playing. So he's playing well, you know, the PGA Tour does well. It's all good things."
Woods now hopes all good things come to a head at Augusta, by way of Madison.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.