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Steve Stricker seeks to continue improvement

Steve Stricker was decked out in white -- shirt, shorts, shoes and legs -- when he loaded his bag onto a cart, gazed at the Pacific Ocean beyond the lush green fairways of Kapalua and asked a most pertinent question.

"Driving range this way, right?" he said with a grin.

It has been six years since Stricker was eligible to play in the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship that kicks off the PGA Tour season on Thursday. There were times he wondered if he would ever get back, especially two years ago when he lost his card and had to write sponsors asking for an invitation.

Few players in the 31-man field are more grateful to be here.

And few are more determined to get back.

Stricker earned his way at The Barclays, the first event in the PGA Tour Playoffs, with birdies on his last three holes for a two-shot victory over K.J. Choi, his first in more than 6 1/2 years. It culminated a hard-earned comeback that began in the winter of '05, when Stricker hit balls in the Wisconsin winter out of a three-sided mobile home to a frozen practice range.

So remarkable was his turnaround that he was voted PGA Tour comeback player of the year two straight seasons, a feat that probably will never be equaled.

So a trip to paradise is the perfect time to soak up his success, right?

Not quite.

"I still feel like I have to prove some things," Stricker said. "I want to prove some things to myself. I'd love to win again. I had so much fun at The Barclays, it just whetted my appetite and I got the feeling that I can do again. And I want to do it again."

Some players who have hit rock-bottom and crawled their way out were determined not to let that happen again. Hal Sutton was in that spot a decade ago, and when he returned to the top of his game, he rarely put the clubs away for more than a few days, fearful that he would lose his edge again.

Stricker isn't taking it to that extreme.

He still loves to spend time in the offseason in a deer stand or on a lake, taking a five-day fishing trip to Canada and spending another five days in the woods with his father-in-law and coach, Dennis Tiziani.

But it's time to get back to work, and Stricker is more interested in where he's going than where he has been.

"It's the nature of the game. It has its ups and downs," he said. "I've been there already. It doesn't bother me. It doesn't scare me anymore. I've dealt with all the negative stuff."

It's all positive at Kapalua, where the 31 players who showed up for Opening Day are reminded of what got them here: Winning.

Stephen Ames was the final qualifier, winning the last PGA Tour event of 2007 at Disney and earning the distinction of being the first player to tee off Thursday in the 2008 season.

Paul Goydos wins the award for waiting the longest to return. The last time he played in the Mercedes was in 1997, when it was held at La Costa, the year Tiger Woods made his tournament debut by beating Tom Lehman in a one-hole playoff on the only hole above water.

It was Woods' third victory in his PGA Tour career. Goydos still had one.

When Goydos earned his second victory, Woods already was up to No. 54, including 13 majors. Doing some quick math, Goydos figured his rate of winning was once every 55 wins for Woods.

"I went up to him at the Masters and said, 'You know, you need to get to 110 (victories) a lot faster than 11 years," he said.

Woods won't get a chance to pick one up this week because he is skipping the Mercedes for the third straight year, and he has company. Phil Mickelson continued his hiatus from Kapalua that began in 2002, while British Open champion Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott also decided not to play.

That should make it easier to win, and the odds keep getting better considering other factors.

The Tour Championship only has a 30-man field, but it's at the end of the season when everyone has played their way to East Lake. Most of these guys at Kapalua have loads of rust, having not hit a meaningful shot in a month or more. Thirteen players have never competed on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, with its mountainous terrain, massive greens and severe slopes.

So the toughest tournament to get into might actually be the easiest to win.

"Never thought of it that way," Mark Calcavecchia said. "There's 31 guys here this year, and there's 30 at the Tour Championship. But Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson aren't here, so that increases your chances of winning greatly."

The defending champion is Vijay Singh, who is close to being fully confident in his revamped swing and has been working harder than ever in the offseason, mostly on his fitness.

"I worked out hard," he said Wednesday. "My offseason was pretty much working harder than other guys, so it's like a break when I come out on the road."

It doesn't hurt players like Singh, U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson that 16 inches of rain one week last month, and 3 inches at the start of the week, has made the Plantation soft and longer than ever.

Singh said it starts with being ready.

"Half of the guys will show up here because they've won and they want to get prepared this week," he said. "I'm prepared when I come over here. If you look at it that way, I think I've only got half the guys to beat. So many guys are coming from cold. Half of America is under snow, I think. I'm ready to play and ready to win."

Stricker came from the snow, and he's ready to win, too.


January 3, 2008

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