Steve Stricker is making his first start of 2017 at this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. His attention the night before the start of the tournament, however, was focused 11 time zones away.
Despite an early tee time Thursday morning at TPC Scottsdale, the 49-year-old stayed up late to watch Tiger Woods play in the opening round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
“I was interested,” said Stricker, a longtime friend and confidant of Woods.
Like many observers, he didn’t like what he saw. And it had less to do with the abysmal 77 that Woods shot — the first time he failed to record a birdie in round in three years and his seventh round of 77 or higher since the beginning of 2014.
“It looks like he’s hurting a little,” Stricker said. “He’s still walking around gingerly, walking very upright, real slow and methodical.
“It doesn’t seem like he has a lot of fire, and that’s what kind of bothers me. Maybe he’s still hurting a little.”
Woods, who has undergone three back surgeries since the spring of 2014, said after his round that he wasn’t in any pain. Only he knows. Stricker agreed.
In December 2014, Stricker underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back, which helped alleviate pain in his hip. He missed the next four months, not returning until the Masters and making just nine starts that year.
Two weeks ago, Stricker and Woods were trading text messages and, according to Stricker, Woods said he “felt good.”
“But it can change in a hurry when you start playing more, hitting balls on the range and grinding,” Stricker said.
After missing more than 15 months following his third back surgery, Woods made his first start at the Hero World Challenge in December. Though he led the field in birdies, he finished 15th in the 18-man field.
Woods returned two months later at Torrey Pines, where he missed the cut at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open before eventually flying to Dubai, his second of four tournaments in a five-week span.
Stricker was also surprised from what he saw from Woods on the greens in Dubai, where he struggled mightily with the shortest club in his bag, taking 33 putts.
“You can tell, and I’ve been there, that his focus isn’t there when he starts hitting some of the putts – whether his swing is bothering him, or he’s hurting – that something is not quite right,” he said. “When he starts missing putts the way he did, that’s focus, especially coming from one of the best putters of all-time. So something’s going on there.”