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Resilient Stricker hangs tough

Kevin Currie, Golf Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Steve Stricker entered the 2012 season with plenty of questions surrounding his game. He battled through a neck injury at the end of 2011, and no one knew how he would bounce back once the calendar changed.

Stricker answered those questions, and more, in a three-stroke win at Kapalua.

If it weren't for those pesky first 13 holes, Stricker could have won by a dozen. For the week, he played the final five holes at 15-under par after going just minus-eight in the opening 13.

Though he doesn't have the flashiest game, Stricker solidified his place as the top American in the world rankings. He moved to No. 5 with the win.

The title was his eighth since the start of the 2009 season. It might comes as a surprise that Stricker is the only PGA Tour player with multiple wins in each of the last three years.

The 44-year-old has clearly taken the mantle from Vijay Singh as best player in his 40s. The victory was Stricker's ninth since turning the big 4-0.

Some might argue Phil Mickelson is the best player in his 40s, but he has won just once since turning 40, and he has dipped to 15th in the world rankings.

Much like Singh has battled a balky back through his career, it now seems as though Stricker will fight his neck injury for some time to come.

Admittedly, Stricker could barely move his left arm at the BMW Championship in September. Since then, he's had a pair of cortisone shots and done extensive physical therapy.

"I don't want to have surgery. I don't think at this point I need it. I'm just going to go ahead and try to do this maintenance that I've been doing the last couple of months and see if that'll remedy the problem," Stricker said after his win on Monday.

"But from what my physical therapist says, it's just something that I need to stay on, be on top of it all the time. So that's what I'm trying to do."

With other players injuring themselves off the course, Stricker is doing all he can to stay off the disabled list.

He heads to the Sony Open this week hoping to extend his tour-leading cuts made streak to 44.

Though he won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by three strokes, Stricker was five clear after the second and third rounds. In each of the final two rounds, he lost nearly his entire lead.

In Sunday's third round, Stricker's cushion dipped to one. After playing the final five holes in five-under par in round two, Stricker birdied the last four holes of round three to push his lead back to five.

The final round was more of the same. His five-stroke advantage was down to one after just seven holes. He responded with birdies on eight and nine to give himself some room.

"When you start to lose your lead and see everybody playing well, I'm watching the leaderboard. I want to know where everybody is at, and I see what they're doing," Stricker said. "But that little stretch at eight and nine really kind of calmed me down a little bit. And that, I think, was the difference today."

His lead was back down to one late in the final round, but Stricker birdied 16 and 18 to seal the deal.

Ever the family man, Stricker said afterwards that his two daughters were, "glad we're coming back (to Hawaii). So, they're looking forward to it and so am I. It's a great place to start."

Stricker might be the top American player, he might be the best in his 40s, but his favorite titles are more likely to be father and husband.

We could all be so lucky to have such a role model.

ARE GOLFERS ATHLETES?

It is a debate that rages in grill rooms across the country - are golfers really athletes?

Plenty of top golfers have favorite hobbies like skiing, snowboarding or surfing. It seems recently that golfers are proving they aren't very nimble.

It all started last year at Kapalua when 2009 champion Geoff Ogilvy was unable to defend his title after cutting his hand on some coral in the ocean, days before the season opener.

Last week, within days of each other, Lucas Glover and Paul Casey both took themselves out of action with injuries.

Glover hopes to tee it up this week after having to withdraw from the Hyundai Tournament of Champions with a sprained MCL in his right knee. He was injured in a paddleboard accident early last week.

Meanwhile, Casey would have been defending his title next week at the Volvo Golf Champions if he didn't try his Shaun White impersonation last week. Actually, that's an insult to White.

Casey dislocated his right shoulder in a snowboard accident and will be out of action for up to two months, or more, as the injury heals.

These guys are giving the doubters more ammunition in the battle of whether golfers are or aren't athletes.

At least Tiger Woods broke his leg golfing, right?

MINI-TIDBITS

- Congrats to 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen on his successful defense of his Africa Open title, and on the pending birth of his second child.

- Seems strange that the PGA and European Tours are starting their second event of the season on Thursday and the LPGA Tour hasn't officially announced its 2012 schedule yet. I'm sure commissioner Michael Whan is working feverishly to get more events before the schedule is finally released.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Kevin Currie at kcurrie@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Kevin Currie on Twitter and Facebook.

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