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Stricker has his mind on winning

Monday, April 04, 2011

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The first step in contending at the Masters Tournament is convincing yourself that you can. Steve Stricker hasn't yet mastered that psychological hurdle.

Steve Stricker analyzes his putt during The Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. (Corey Perrine/Staff)

"I keep looking at some of the guys who've won there," said the third-highest ranked American in the world. "Mike Weir doesn't hit it extremely long. Zach Johnson doesn't hit it extremely long. So it can be done. You don't have to be a bomber to win there. I keep telling myself it would help to be long and in the fairway, but guys have shown that you don't have to necessarily overpower it."

Stricker is one of the best putters in the world, a gift that would seem to be an essential tool in what Johnny Miller used to sarcastically call the "Annual Spring Putting Contest" at Augusta National Golf Club. The list of Masters winners who aren't skilled on the greens is a short one.

But Stricker's habit has been to take himself out of the running before his putting could be a defining factor. He has missed five cuts in 10 Masters starts. He finished as high as a tie for sixth in 2009 and opened with 66 in 2001 that had him one shot off the lead before eventually tying for 10th.

Overall, though, he is 39-over par in 30 career Masters rounds.

"It's been tough for me there, and I don't know why," he said. "It's a course where you need to hit it long, and more importantly you need to be hitting your irons well. I've struggled there in the past with my iron play. If you're off with your irons, it puts a lot of pressure on your short game and your putting. If you don't hit it in those little quadrants where you can make an easy two-putt, it's tough to two-putt at times. Hopefully, I'll get my iron play in order before I get there. That's the key there."

It says something that Stricker was at his best before Augusta National lengthened the course -- finishing 38th, 19th and 10th from 1999-2001 -- and again recently when the course setup was less punitive.

Steve Stricker (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

"I think it's a lot better, and I think they realize it's better this way," Stricker said of the kinder, gentler setups the past two years. "It provides a lot more excitement, especially Sunday. It's still tough. They don't need to make it where par is a heckuva score. Make it where 2-under is a heckuva score, and then you'll get the guys shooting 68s. They need birdies there to create the atmosphere."

Stricker has played the best golf of his career since turning 40, becoming a consistent top-10 player and a fixture on U.S. international teams since 2007. Now 44 with nine career tour victories, he still believes that the window is open for him to finally win the major title that has eluded him.

"I'd obviously like to be a few years younger, I think, but I still think I can win out here and a major is no different," he said. "You're still playing against the same guys. It's just coming all together that one week."

If that one week is going to happen in April, the first step is believing it can happen.

"I feel like I've played there enough and know where to hit it and where not to hit it," he said of Augusta National. "I'll try not to overanalyze it. I'd like to believe I can win there. I get excited to go there and play. It's been difficult for me there, so I've got to erase those thoughts and go there with a fresh attitude about it."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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