SILVIS, Ill. — The top two players in the World Golf Rankings are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. No news flash, that.
They are iconic sports figures. Icons don’t eat at Denny’s restaurants, for instance, whether by choice or for fear of paparazzi pouring out of the kitchen.
They also don’t play the John Deere Classic. There isn’t enough money or prestige for them here, plus both typically set up shop in the United Kingdom in this, the week before the British Open.
Mickelson played in this week’s Scottish Open, where he missed the 36-hole cut. He has never played the Deere.
Woods played the 1996 Deere on a sponsor’s exemption as a rookie fresh out of college, tied for fifth place after holding the 54-hole lead, and never returned.
Steve Stricker is the third-ranked American golfer, and No. 4 in the world. He eats at Denny’s. He plays the Deere. He is its defending champion and he is the 36-hole leader here this year.
First, about Denny’s. Stricker and his family ate at one in northern California last month in the week of the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach. He was recognized there by some golf-savvy tourney volunteers, but wasn’t hassled.
“I live pretty much in anonymity,” Stricker said that week. “Not a lot of people recognize me. So I’ve got the best of both worlds, really. I’d hate to be in some of these other guys’ shoes where they can’t even go out. It’s nice. It really is.”
Stricker is 43. He has found his greatest golf glories within the last couple of years. He won three times on the PGA Tour last year, including the ’09 Deere here at TPC Deere Run. He won four 2009 Presidents Cup doubles matches as Woods’ doubles partner.
He was ranked as high as No. 2 in the world earlier this year, but an inflmmation to his SC joint — where his clavicle meets his sternum — kept him off the course for several weeks after the Masters. He’s fine now, as the Deere leaderboard attests.
But Stricker isn’t what you would call flashy. He just plays, and plays brilliantly. He followed his opening-round 60 with a 66 on Friday to reach 16-under-par through 36 holes. That’s after he won last year’s tourney with a 20-under total.
That, folks, is good. You don’t get to be No. 4 in the world without some special skills.
“I played with him when I first got out here (on the Tour),” Zach Johnson said Friday, “and his golf swing was a little wayward. So he’s done some things fundamentally with his golf swing that have obviously made him more consistent. He’s got a go-to shot, meaning it’s just a slight draw, and it’s very repetitive and it’s very consistent.
“And then you coincide that with the fact that he’s probably one of the top two or three best wedge players and certainly one of the two or three best putters. That’s why he is where he’s at.”
This is Stricker’s ninth appearance at the Deere. He is from the Madison, Wis., area, and went to college at the University of Illinois.
“It’s a home event for me,” he said Friday. “It’s going to a place where they really get behind me here, and I appreciate that.”
The tournament designated Friday as Illini Day. Illinois had a tent behind the seventh tee where orange flags with blue ‘I’s flew. Many fans in the gallery wore the Illini orange. Stricker wore an orange shirt.
“I tried to do my part,” he said.
“I’m getting a lot of warm welcomes and a lot of people cheering for me. I’ll hear an I-L-L chant, and then I’ll hear ‘Go Badgers!’ right behind it.”
No one yells “Go Sun Devils” at Arizona State alum Mickelson or “Go Cardinal!” at former Stanford student Woods. Maybe Lefty hears an occasional “Go Rolex!” in regards to one of his endorsement deals. Who knows what is said to Tiger these days.
As the defending and perhaps repeating champion, Stricker is as close to a perfect face for the John Deere as there is out here. He’s Midwestern, unassuming, and as he said earlier this week, “I do some farm work every once in a while.”
Stricker farms, likes to go fishing, eats at Denny’s once in a while, and makes a bunch of birdies.
It’s a wonderful life. A wonderful anonymous life.