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Steve Stricker looking to finish on top at Open

Steve Stricker right is congratulated by his caddie after winning Memorial golf tournament Muirfield Village Golf Club DublOhio Sunday June

Steve Stricker, right, is congratulated by his caddie after winning the Memorial golf tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio Sunday, June 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

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Site: Congressional Country Club
(Blue Course), Bethesda, Md.

Length: 7,574 yards. Par: 36-35—71.

Updated: August 3, 2011 8:05PM

SILVIS, Ill. — After winning the Memorial on June 5 in Dublin, Ohio, the top-ranked U.S. golfer was at home in Madison, Wis., by 11 p.m.

By 6:30 the next morning, Steve Stricker was behind the wheel of the family car — 12-year-old daughter Bobbi in tow — to keep a date to meet with the media to promote the John Deere Classic. He’ll be going for a three-peat in that event when it begins July 7.

Stricker is the kind of guy sports fans ought to adore but don’t. We lament that star athletes tend to lead mistake-riddled, egocentric lives. But when push comes to shove, we are more fascinated by John Daly’s carousing and Tiger Woods’ scandalous sex obsession than we are by Stricker’s straight-arrow approach.

Chances are, Stricker never will make headlines for something he does off the course. Even on the course, his game is more remarkable for its rock-solid consistency than for heroic stuff.

If Woods makes eagle on par-3, par-4 and par-5 holes in the same tournament, everyone marvels at his amazing game. If Stricker does it, as he did at the Memorial, we still wonder whether he can win the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Congressional in Bethesda, Md.

‘‘Are you calling me underappreciated?’’ Stricker said with a smile when I mentioned the wide-open nature of golf these days. ‘‘Tiger and Phil [Mickelson] are still the biggest draws in golf. We all still tune in to golf — I know I do — just to see how they’re going to play. But it also gives a lot of guys a lot of confidence knowing that it’s kind of wide-open. That’s the carrot that dangles in front of us: If you play well enough, you can beat anybody out there. I think that’s the way everybody’s feeling.’’

True to his usual routine, Stricker put down his clubs for a few days before getting down to the business of preparing for the Open.

‘‘I enjoy the course,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s just a great, old-style course. As at any U.S. Open, you have to drive the ball well. Hopefully, I can carry that over from what I did [at the Memorial]. You need your whole game there. Conditions are going to be tough, but I enjoy the challenge one week out of the year. It’s a tough week. It’s mentally fatiguing and tiring, but it’s a place where you want to be. You can’t win it if you’re not there.’’

In 14 previous U.S. Opens, Stricker has three top-10 finishes. He was fifth twice — in 1998 at the Olympic Club and in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2 — and was sixth in 2006 at Winged Foot. He finished 36th when the Open was played at Congressional in 1997.

But that’s practically a lifetime ago for Stricker, who nearly fell off the face of the golf world from 2003 to 2005, dropping out of the top 150 in PGA Tour earnings.

That’s why he appreciates his recent rise to fourth in the world rankings — behind Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer — which makes him the top-ranked U.S. player.

The victory at the Memorial was the 10th of his career, and it was especially satisfying because he was able to hang tough when things weren’t going well in the final round.

But what Stricker, 44, really wants is to add his first major.

‘‘To win a major is at the top of my list,’’ he said. ‘‘My window of opportunity seems, with age, to be dwindling a bit. I’m still playing some pretty good golf. I still feel like I maybe have an opportunity here or there yet before my career is over. Winning the Open would be pretty special.’’

Stricker, though, said he won’t obsess about it.

‘‘My attitude these last four or five years has been great,’’ said Stricker, who believes his state of mind has meant as much to his comeback as his swing change. ‘‘The two go hand-in-hand. If you don’t want to be there, or you’re upset or angry, it leads to poor play.

‘‘My biggest thing this year is I’m fresh. I feel good every time I go out. I wanted to be home a little more. I look forward to my time off. Then — bang! — I look forward to going out and playing again.’’

A golfer who has things in perspective doesn’t make for much conversation around the water cooler. But if things work out for Stricker this week, there couldn’t be a more appropriate champion when the Open wraps up on Father’s Day.

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