Forget Phil, Stricker has earned No. 2 spot

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All this time, golf's been turning its lonely eyes to Phil, as if it was preordained that Mickelson would be filling the void left by Tiger Woods.

Maybe it made sense because Mickelson is telegenic and plays golf like a riverboat gambler stuck on a roller coaster; you can't take your eyes off of him, and the sport needed a larger-than-life personality in Woods' absence.

It also made sense because Mickelson was at his mercurial best at the end of last season, coming back from time off helping his wife deal with the early stages of breast cancer to stare down Woods in both Atlanta and China.

But the grand transition plan didn't allow for the fact that golf's a meritocracy and Mickelson is now, officially, no longer the heir to the throne.

And after blowing his chances in both San Diego and L.A.'s Riviera, where he was seeking to become the first man to win three straight times at Hogan's Alley, Mickelson doesn't deserve to be. That might be a hard truth for Phil's legions of fans to accept, but it's also inescapable.

He had three months to prepare for the start of 2010 -- knowing what was at stake -- and couldn't deliver. Think Tiger would've been an also-ran, finishing 19th and in a tie for 45th, if the roles had been reversed?

No, Phil blew it. He couldn't even get himself into the running at Torrey Pines or Riviera because he couldn't find a fairway with binoculars and a compass. Three months to prepare and he couldn't keep the ball in play. It's a sad reminder that obsession with distance in golf really is a double-edged sword. As good as Phil's short game is, it couldn't hold up to the strain of so many missed greens, especially on these finicky poa annua putting surfaces.

Steve Stricker didn't blow it, even though for a while Sunday it looked like he might.

After holding on to record his fourth win in 15 months at the Northern Trust Los Angeles Open, the unassuming quiet achiever from Wisconsin now deservedly owns the world No. 2 ranking.

And in every way, Strick's the anti-Phil.

Where Phil can be either filet mignon or all sizzle and no steak, Stricker is meat and potatoes. He's got a simple, repetitive swing and never tries to execute shots he's not comfortable trying. He keeps his ball in play and lets his putter do his talking.

There's nothing flashy about this small-town guy who drives a pickup truck that probably costs less than Phil's customized golf cart. A cart equipped with satellite television so he can watch sports while he zips around at The Bridges, a Southern California country club which costs a cool $350,000 just to get in the gates.

If Mickelson was at a Lakers game he'd be mobbed; Stricker went while in L.A. and was recognized by a grand total of one person.

"The guy sitting right behind me was the only one," the soon-to-be 43-year-old said with a self-deprecating laugh.

More people need to know him, because he's got one hell of a story.

Less than five years ago Stricker had lost his Tour card. His career was in a freefall; a former Tour winner, he'd dropped to No. 337 in the world.

He cries every time he wins, because he remembers what it's like to hit rock bottom.

"I went to Tour school in 2005 and I didn't make it, and it was a reality check," he said Sunday, "It was a humbling experience, and I just decided I needed to bear down and fix a couple things that were really bothering me.

"And I took it upon myself really to do that. I think that was really the turnaround. I didn't listen to anybody else, I didn't listen to psychologists or my swing coach or anybody else, it was me who decided what I needed to do and what needed to be fixed. And I think once I took hold of that responsibility on my own, I think that's when it started to turn."

It's a life lesson we could all stand to learn.

Stricker, who spends the winter practicing in a heated trailer on his property, taught himself to keep his driver in play. From there, he vowed to not just get his job back, but to live up to the potential he saw within himself.

"Six years ago, if I would have told anybody (about his goal) they would have said, 'You're crazy'. But I put a lot of hard work into it. You know, it just means a lot," he said.

Stricker's one of the closest players on Tour to Woods. They were perfect as a team at last year's Presidents Cup and have played a lot of golf together. It wasn't surprising that he deferred when asked about taking over as No. 1.

"We all know who the best player in the world is," he said.

"He does what he does, and I do the things that I do, and that's what I've gotten down to is I just try to do what I'm good at, and that's sometimes not the flashiest thing in the world. It may be grinding it out, making putts or getting it up-and-down, but it's my way. It's my style, I guess."

Whether he knows it or not, within those sentiments lies the answer to beating any golfer, including Woods. If Stricker ever doubted it, he could always check with Y.E. Yang, who followed precisely that recipe and upset Woods at the PGA Championship last August.