JOHN DEERE CLASSIC: Stricker within 4 of leader after Round 1

SILVIS, IL. –If Steve Stricker is to make golf history by winning the John Deere Classic for a fourth straight year he’ll have to pick up his game on the front nine of TPC Deere Run.

Stricker struggled badly on the front nine in Thursday’s opening round, the shot 6-under-par on the back side to post a 65. That put him in a tie for third place, four shots behind leader Troy Matteson.

“It was like the pro-am yesterday,’’ said Stricker. “I was 1-over on the front and lit it up (5-under) on the back. Today I didn’t feel too comfortable at the start. I hit it great on the range, but didn’t have the same rhythm when I was out there playing.’’

In today’s second round Stricker will start at No. 10 with a 7:30 a.m. tee time. He figures that should be a help, since the greens will be fresh and relatively free of ball and spike marks. Every little bit helps when you’re trying to put yourself into the select company awaiting Stricker.

Over the last 140 years of professional golf only four players have won a major tournament four straight years – Tom Morris Jr. (in the early days of the British Open in the late 1800s), Walter Hagen (PGA Championship), Gene Sarazen (Miami Open) and Tiger Woods, who did it twice (Bay Hill Invitational and Buick Invitational).

Woods was Stricker’s playing partner for the first two rounds of last week’s Greenbrier Classic. “He told me to get it done,’’ said Stricker, but that simple advice at least so far hasn’t been heeded.

A standing-room-only crowd greeted Stricker warmly when he arrived at the first tee and he was given a lengthy introduction.

“It reminded me of a time I played with Tom Watson at Phoenix many year ago,’’ said Stricker. “They ripped off all of his accomplishments, and then he hit it to a foot on the first hole and a foot at the second. This wasn’t anything like that.’’

Not by a long shot. Stricker’s first tee shot landed in a fairway bunker, he chunked a chip shot at No. 2, missed the green right at the par-3 third, hit a tree in the center of his fairway with his drive at No. 4 and then missed that green to the left. Then Stricker hit his drive at No. 5 into thick rough. Somehow he got through the front side at even par, then made birdies at Nos. 10 and 12 before holing out for eagle from 78 yards at the 14th.

“I couldn’t see the pin. I liked up with a divot in the bunker and hit it well, but you don’t expect to make those things,’’ he said. “It gave me a big momentum boost.’’

Stricker made birdies at the next hole as well as the par-5 17th coming in and saved par at the 18th after hitting his tee shot far left, close to where he uncorked his spectacular bunker shot that led to his win here last year..

The only players ahead of Stricker are Matteson, who made 10 birdies, and Ricky Barnes who shot 64. Barnes played early, Matteson late, like Stricker, and was aware of the low scoring likely at TPC Deere Run. He and his playing partners joked about that.

“We saw a guy (Barnes) with 7-under on the leaderboard and we said, why is it only 7-under?’’ said Matteson. “Then we saw Steve Stricker on the range and figured he was in the afternoon wave, so we figured the low one was still coming.’’