Updated at: 03/28/2013 7:39 PM
By CHRIS DUNCAN
(AP) HUMBLE, Texas - At some point, Steve Stricker may have to turn down all the requests for putting lessons.
Since straightening out Tiger Woods stroke, Stricker has somewhat facetiously become known as the tour’s resident expert on the greens. He’s still taking grief for it and a handful of players asked him for instruction on Wednesday in advance of this week’s Houston Open.
"I’m hearing it all over the place," Stricker said. "Some of them are joking and I think some are serious."
Stricker is happy to help, but doesn’t want to be distracted from his own game. He talked about balancing the two with Dave Stockton Sr., who developed a reputation as a putting guru when he was on tour and now coaches several players.
"He said, what you have to do is, if you’re going to help a guy, just tell the guy, `You never got help from me, so the word doesn’t get out,’" Stricker said. "That’s not the way I am, I guess. Makes sense that you still have to pay attention to what you’re doing. Otherwise, you get caught up in everybody else and what they need to fix in their game and your game goes by the wayside all of a sudden."
Maybe more than ever, Stricker seems to have his focus in the right place.
The 46-year-old Stricker is scheduled to play only 11 events this year. So far, he’s making the most of his limited opportunities, with $1.82 million earned in his three starts.
"It’s only been three events, but I notice the change in myself playing so far," Stricker said. "I feel like there’s a little bit less pressure on me to perform well, for whatever reason."
These days, Stricker won’t pick up a club for more than a week after playing in a tournament, then resume practicing about five days before leaving for the next one. After finishing second to Woods at Doral, he returned home to Wisconsin and took in some basketball at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago the following week.
"I always have come out and done fairly well when I’m fresh," Stricker said. "Whether that’s a mental thing, I don’t know. But I enjoy coming out. I feel like I’m a little bit easier on myself, I’m fresher mentally."
He’s back at one of his favorite tournaments this week, the one he credits with reviving his career in 2006.
Stricker finished 162nd on the money list in 2005, and needed a sponsor’s exemption from tournament director Steve Timms to play in the Houston Open the following year. He shot a 66 in the final round to finish third, the first of seven top-10s in 2006, and was later named the tour’s comeback player of the year.
"It brings back a lot of good memories," Stricker said. "(Timms) gave me a spot in `06, when I needed a spot. Played well, and went on to play well that year and ever since really. As long as I’m eligible to come here, I probably will."
The Houston Open became the run-up event to the Masters in 2007 and organizers embraced the niche, trying to create Augusta-like conditions at Redstone.
This year, the tournament lost that distinction, with the Masters starting later than usual. The Houston Open stayed put in the week after Bay Hill, while the PGA Tour moved the Texas Open in San Antonio to the week before Augusta.
The move on the calendar wasn’t enough to lure Woods, who’s never competed in the Houston Open and has historically played two weeks before majors.
But it was ideal for Rory McIlroy, who slipped to No. 2 in the world after Woods won at Bay Hill. McIlroy hasn’t played since tying for eighth in Doral, the most encouraging performance of an otherwise forgettable start to his season.
"I definitely treat this tournament as its own entity and a tournament that’s worth winning," McIlroy said. "It’s not a week before the Masters, it works really well."
He’s comfortable with Woods taking over the top spot in the world rankings, and the spotlight that comes with it. But McIlroy also wants to get in the mix in Houston before heading to Augusta.
"I want to get back to getting into contention in tournaments and trying to win," McIlroy said. "I think this is a good week to try and get into contention, have a chance with the Masters coming up. I’m just really focused on this week in Houston and trying to play well here."
Defending champion Hunter Mahan, 2011 winner Phil Mickelson and top-10 players Brandt Snedeker, Louis Oosthuizen and Keegan Bradley are also in the field this week. Bradley is up to No. 10 in the world after three straight top-10 finishes.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)