SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ryder Cup captains are supposed to be the ones handing out words of encouragement to their players, not the ones receiving it.
Steve Stricker is starting to get the idea that his week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open isn't going to follow that script.
With his 54th birthday a little less than three weeks away, the Madison native got the attention of a few golfers who might be doing the heavy lifting in September when the Ryder Cup comes to Whistling Straits after he shot 65 and made a Thursday appearance on the leaderboard at TPC Scottsdale. Stricker couldn't wait for the reaction Friday after a second-round 66 pushed him into a share of the lead until Xander Schauffele — No. 4 in the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings — birdied No. 18 to finish off a 6-under-par 30 on the back nine and a 7-under 64 for the day, slipping past the U.S. captain and Keegan Bradley for a one-stroke advantage halfway through this PGA Tour event.
"(Brandt) Snedeker was in my kitchen, saying 'You need to smile. You're leading the tournament. Why aren't you smiling?'" Stricker said of the two-time Ryder Cup member. "I got a couple other texts from guys, too, so it was good. You know, I know all those cliches; (Thursday) was only one round so I knew (Friday) was an important day to come out and try to back that one up."
Stricker has backed up the hands of time with the way he has carved up TPC Scottsdale.
His 11-under 131 start is his best on the PGA Tour since 2012, when he opened 68-63 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, closed with a pair of 69s and won by three shots. That was also the last of the 12 PGA Tour victories for Stricker, who has just seven top-25 finishes in 34 starts on the regular tour since turning 50 in 2017 and last flirted with victory in 2016 when he finished second by three shots to Daniel Berger at the Fed-Ex St. Jude Classic.
"(Winning again) would mean a lot," said Stricker, who — at 53 years, 11 months and 7 days — would surpass Sam Snead, who won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at 52 years, 10 months and 8 days, as the oldest winner in the history of the PGA Tour.
"I mean, I know it's a long shot. I've got to play my very best, just like anybody else does out here. But, you know, I've been there. I've won a few times out on this tour and I know what it takes, although it has been awhile. It would be fun to see how I handle it if I do get that opportunity."
For a golfer ranked No. 460 in the Official World Golf Ranking, No. 167 in the FedEx Cup standings and No. 111 in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings (for those dreaming of a playing captain in his home state), Stricker handled the limelight well Friday.
Playing alongside fellow Madison golfer Jerry Kelly and European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington for the second day in a row, Stricker started on No. 10 and rattled off birdies on the first four odd-numbered holes. Two of them (Nos. 13 and 15) were par-5s and Stricker added a birdie on the only par-5 on the front nine and another birdie at the par-3 seventh hole got him to 12-under and, for a time, two shots clear of the field.
However, errant approach shots on Nos. 8 and 9, a pair of par-4s, forced Stricker into scramble mode. He saved par with a 7-foot putt on the eighth hole, but missed a 10-footer on No. 9 after leaving his approach in a greenside bunker.
"It was a good day except for the last couple holes," Stricker said. "Hit a couple poor iron shots coming in. ... Other than that, it was a good day. I did a lot of good things again. I didn't drive it quite as well, but (I) gave myself some opportunities and made some nice putts again."
Kelly, 54, who finished birdie-birdie to shoot 69 only to miss the 36-hole cut by one shot, believes Stricker's putter can keep him in the mix on the weekend if his mind doesn't get too far ahead of the task at hand.
"That was absolutely vintage Steve — just get the ball in the fairway, get the ball on the green and try to make putts," Kelly told PGATour.com. "He’s got such a great short game. It’s just really consistent, really solid, really good golf. The putter was absolutely fantastic.”
Stricker, however, knows Saturday rounds in 72-hole PGA Tour events have been a challenge in recent years. He has bettered 70 just twice in his last 10 PGA Tour starts in which he has made the 36-hole cut and just four times in the last 20. He shot a third-round 77 at The Farmers Insurance Open near San Diego last week, but also shot a 65 in the third round of the Maykoba Classic in December.
At the same time, Stricker has recorded 22 top-10 finishes in 29 starts on the PGA Tour Champions since turning 50 in 2017. Five of those have been victories.
"I've got to clean up a couple little shots that I messed up coming in," Stricker said. "But I feel pretty good about my game and where it's going."