Stricker represents America's best Open hope

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- All Tiger Woods has to do Sunday is shoot Paris Hilton's waist size, hope Scottish authorities arrest Sergio Garcia and his Cirque du Soleil wardrobe and -- hello! -- he'll win his third consecutive British Open and keep the Claret Jug in an American's hands for a fifth straight year.

Fat chance. Woods is eight strokes behind your leader Garcia, who overcame nerves, his throwback Tampa Bay Buccaneers outfit, and knocking a spectator senseless to keep the lead for three days running. That means Woods has to go low, way low -- something like a British Open record-tying 63, or better -- to even be a threat here.

It's not going to happen. Woods will grind away, just like he always does, but he won't leave here with another Jug. Instead, America is left rooting for a guy who a year ago thought about quitting the game, who didn't have a PGA Tour card and had to beg tournament sponsors to let him play.

On Saturday, that same guy, Steve Stricker, set a Carnoustie British Open record with a 7-under 64. He's in second place, three shots behind the orange/red-attired Garcia, and, yeah, he could still win this thing.

"I figured I needed a good round to get back into this tournament," Stricker said.

Good? Stricker took one of the hardest courses in the world, escorted it to the woodshed, and beat the crap out of it. He did it on a typically breezy, soggy Scottish day that was as cold as shrimp on ice. He was 5-under after just nine holes and 7-under after 14. On Carnoustie's four finishing holes, the kind that put hair on your chest, Stricker made par on each.

"One more day," said Stricker's caddie Tom Mitchell. "One more day."

Mitchell has carried Stricker's bag for the last five years, including the 2003 season when Stricker won a grand total of $150,590 on tour, was 189th on the money list, and couldn't make a cut if a tournament spotted him five strokes. He lost his swing, his desire and his exempt standing.

"Sometimes you have to be at the bottom to realize what you need to get back to the top," said Mitchell.

Stricker has been at both elevations. In 1996, he finished fourth on the money list, won twice and nearly had to shovel the cash into his bank account. Eight years later he was on the verge of "Stricker-Who?" status.

"It wasn't a spot where I wanted to be in, begging for spots to get in the field," Stricker said. "That probably added to my desire and fueled me to work a little harder and get back to where I thought I should be."

His game was in intensive care. His attitude was south of the equator. He beat himself up after every poor shot, after every missed cut. For a moment, a long moment, he thought about doing something else for a living. One problem.

"That's why I'm in golf," he said, "because there wasn't anything else."

Stricker made up with his swing, found a way to get ride of the hooks (he wouldn't even speak the word during his post-round interview), and fell in love with the game again.

"Now he's put everything together," said Mitchell. "But the big thing is, he's at peace with himself."

It shows. Stricker won a career-high $1.8 million in 2006 and was named the tour's Comeback Player of the Year. This season he has four top-five finishes, was tied for the U.S. Open lead heading into the back nine of the final round at Oakmont (then bogeyed Nos. 10 and 11), and nearly won Tiger's tournament two weeks ago.

"You know, I don't know if I'm back," he said. "I played well in '96. I had some good years in between there and 2001. And then after that, I fell off the map there a while."

Now he's back on it, and you don't need a navigational system to locate him. His round of 64 (his lowest of the year) attracted everyone's attention, including Garcia's. They'll be paired together when Sunday's final round begins.

As Stricker left the 18th green and made his way to the scorer's trailer, guests at the adjacent Carnoustie Hotel stood on the balconies of their rooms and smothered him with applause. Garrison Rivard, a veteran caddie on the Canadian Tour, waited nearby and wished Stricker well.

"He's a great guy," said Rivard. "If he shoots 80 or 60, you don't know it."

Stricker knew about the 64, but he didn't have a clue about setting a Carnoustie British Open record. He did know it was a special round in a special place. Minutes earlier, as he and Mitchell walked up the 18th fairway toward the green, Stricker turned to his caddie and said, "We've never been here before. Tomorrow those grandstands will be loaded with people."

They'll watching the European favorite, Garcia, of course. A European hasn't won a British Open since Scotland's Paul Lawrie did it in 1999 ... at this very same Carnoustie.

But they'll also be watching Stricker, who, like Garcia, is trying to win his first-ever major. If Stricker pulls off the upset, he might even have a thank you note waiting for him in his locker.

From Tiger Woods. With respect.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.