Ryder Cup rookie Stricker back on his game in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- The call came on Monday evening, and Steve Stricker was in no mood for small talk. Paul Azinger, the U.S. Ryder Cup team captain, was on the other end of the cell phone connection, and Stricker knew his day was about to go in one of two completely different directions.

For weeks, Stricker had been sweating out making the American squad, having failed to earn one of the eight automatic spots. He knew that his world ranking (eighth) and place in the final Ryder Cup standings (ninth) were strong statements, but not necessarily strong enough.

"Immediately I said, 'Is this a good call or a bad call?'" Stricker said. "And he's like, 'No this is a good call.' He broke the ice right away."

And Stricker, 41, could finally stop sweating.

He admitted the pressure of trying to make his first Ryder Cup team was taking its toll.

"Every day was a grind, I could tell that I was kind of emotionally spent, just at the end of my rope," he said. "I was tired, I didn't want to focus on it anymore, I just wanted it to be over with, and it's hard to play when you're that way."

After finishing tied for 19th at the Barclays and tied for 13th on Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Stricker is 13th in the FedEx Cup playoff standings and likely headed to Atlanta in three weeks for the Tour Championship. Taking place the week following the Ryder Cup, the Tour Championship will feature the top 30 in the standings jockeying for position behind Vijay Singh, who has all but locked up the $10 million bonus paid to the winner of the Cup.

But there is still plenty of cash at stake, as Stricker knows. Last year he finished second to Tiger Woods in the FedEx Cup and earned a $3 million bonus. The payouts decrease from there.

A good start on Friday at the BMW Championship didn't diminish his chances of earning another hefty check.

Stricker shot 4-under-par 66 at Bellerive Country Club to trail first-round leader Camilo Villegas by a stroke at the rain-delayed tournament, the third leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Singh, the leader in the FedEx Cup standings, shot even-par 70 and is tied for 37th. Sergio Garcia, who trails Singh by 12,225 points, shot 68 and is tied for 12th in the 69-player field.

And Stricker admitted afterward that having the good news from Azinger was a big help.

"I do sense it probably would have been very difficult [not to be chosen]," Stricker said. "I was gearing up all year for this. It was the No. 1 goal for me to start the year, and I would imagine if I wouldn't have been picked it would have been a big disappointment. But I don't have to think that way.

"It's just the opposite. It's just very exciting to me, and I'm looking forward to that week. Knowing that's there, I can still focus on this tournament here and try to do my best and give myself a chance at winning."

As it turned out, Azinger liked Stricker all along, but he just didn't tell him. Perhaps that sounds cruel, but the captain wanted to make sure Stricker stayed sharp, a sentiment he appreciated but admitted didn't make the task any easier.

"Stricker has shown me a lot here, especially lately," Azinger said. "I know his game is really good right now. He's confident. He's a terrific player. He's perfect on the team. His personality is good. Great chipper, great putter, and a proven-match play winner."

Stricker, the winner of four PGA Tour titles in his career, would be the first to admit that it probably never should have come down to needing a captain's pick.

After winning more than $4 million last year, Stricker started strong in 2008 with a playoff loss at the Mercedes Championships and a tie for fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He was among the top eight automatic Ryder Cup qualifiers the whole year, until a midseason slump put his position in peril.

Stricker missed four straight cuts and five out of six. Although he has not missed another one since Colonial in May, his tie for seventh at the British Open was his highest finish in months.

And even that wasn't enough to secure a spot on the team, as Ben Curtis used a tie for second place to push past Stricker at the last qualifying event, the PGA Championship. Stricker tied for 39th.

Starting with the British Open, this is Stricker's fifth event in six weeks -- the same grind that any player who has advanced to this stage has endured.

But for the second year in a row, it has hardly affected him. Stricker has yet to finish outside the top 20 in a playoff event in two years and is a collective 66 under par in seven tournaments.

The jam-packed stretch at the end of the season is the reason the PGA Tour decided to move the Tour Championship to the week after the Ryder Cup, giving players a much-needed break next week.

"Guys have made a push here toward the end, ever since the British Open, and then the WGC event, the PGA. you know it's been a long push," Stricker said. "I think the guys on the team and even the players who aren't playing in the Ryder Cup are looking forward to a week off. It's been a long year. It's been a culmination of a lot of tournaments, and guys start to wear out this time of year, and I think everybody just needs to get a break once in a while. It's nice that it's a forced break."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.