By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KOHLER, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin native Steve Stricker is wary of succumbing to the pressure of expectation at the U.S. PGA Championship, having already been overwhelmed by the support of the local fans during practice.
The softly-spoken American world number four is among the favorites for the year's final major at Whistling Straits and would dearly love to make his breakthrough on the game's biggest stage in his home state this week.
"Do I feel extra expectations? Yeah, I do ... more so from myself than anything. Like I do every other week, I want to play well, but I really, really want to play well here," he told reporters on the eve of Thursday's opening round on the Straits Course.
"But it's hard to do, especially when you're playing in front of all the home fans,"
The 43-year-old, a nine-times winner on the PGA Tour who lives in nearby Madison, practiced with fellow Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly over the last two days and the duo have been loudly cheered on by the fans as they reach every green.
Some of the supporters are young children wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words 'Stricker's Soldiers'.
"They're rooting hard for you and there are a lot of expectations but you have just got to take a step back and try to do the things you normally do," said Stricker. "I'm feeling so much energy from the people here."
Stricker, a double champion on the PGA Tour this season, has recorded nine top-10s in the majors without breaking through into the winner's circle.
Widely regarded as one of the game's best putters, he is at a loss to explain why major success has so far eluded him.
"I don't try to put any extra pressure on myself, even though there is some," Stricker said.
"I've had some tournaments where I have gotten up around the lead, nothing really with a legitimate chance to win, and got some top-10s along the way, but nothing real significant.
"Always in a major you're feeling a little bit of extra pressure, but because of those expectations, maybe I'm feeling a little bit more pressure."
With world number one Tiger Woods and second-ranked Phil Mickelson having produced poor form in the final round of last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Stricker believes the PGA Championship is anyone's to win.
"This is probably as wide open a major as we have seen in a long time, and I still think Tiger and Phil are going to be there come Sunday," he said.
"There are a number of people who could win and that's what's exciting about this year's major. As players, we all sense that too. If you can play well and get it going, then you have a great opportunity to win here."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)