Stricker moves to No. 1 in another category |

Stricker moves to No. 1 in another category

AP Golf Writer

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.- Steve Stricker is No. 2 in the official world golf ranking. He might be No. 1 on a list not so official.

Ever since Phil Mickelson won the 2004 Masters for his first major, the search for the “best player to have never won a major” has settled on Sergio Garcia, mostly by default. The list had always featured players in their 30s or early 40s who had won at least 10 times, were highly ranked and who had a couple of close calls in the majors.

Garcia fits that now, with 18 victories worldwide and being in serious contention five times in the majors.

Now, however, the focus is shifting back to age.

Stricker turns 43 in two months. He has won a World Golf Championship, two times in the FedEx Cup playoffs (against some of the strongest fields of the year), and he was in position Sunday to win the U.S. Open and the British Open in 2007.

He has avoided the label for so long because Stricker virtually disappeared during a three-year stretch through 2005, when he lost his PGA Tour card and didn’t even make it through Q-school.

Asked whether he was the best without a major, Stricker said he would take that as a compliment. But he didn’t think the label belongs to him alone, nor did he think it would be easy to shed.

“There’s a lot of other good players that have not won majors,” Stricker said. “Sergio hasn’t won one, Lee Westwood is looking for one. There’s a lot of other great players that have not won a major, and it’s hard to do. You only get four cracks at it a year, and there’s definitely a higher intensity at those majors.”

Westwood, who turns 37 this year, twice has won the money title in Europe. He came within a 15-foot putt of joining the U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008, and only a three-putt from about 70 feet on the final hole at Turnberry kept him out of the British Open playoff.

The other player would be Kenny Perry, the oldest of the group at 49.

Perry only had seven victories when Mickelson won his first major, and has been largely overlooked until winning three times in 2008 and coming within a par of winning the Masters last year.

No other player belongs on the list, either because they are too young (Martin Kaymer, Sean O’Hair), haven’t won enough (Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Anthony Kim) or contended in enough majors (Robert Allenby).

RIVIERA RATINGS: The Northern Trust Open was moved up one week this year due to a combination of the Winter Olympics and CBS Sports broadcasting the Super Bowl. It returns to its normal spot in the schedule next year, which should help its TV ratings.

The overnight rating for the final round, when Steve Stricker won to become No. 2 in the world, was 1.9. That compared with a 3.5 for the Northern Trust Open last year, when Phil Mickelson won and it was not held the day of the Super Bowl.

The more reasonable comparison: The 1.9 was up from a 1.5 the Phoenix Open got in 2009 on Super Bowl Sunday.

BEST IN OZ: Royal Melbourne has been rated the No. 1 golf course in Australia for nearly a quarter-century by Australian Golf Digest. That changed with the latest rankings, brought on by a critical change in criteria.

The magazine no longer rates the composite course, which was used for the Presidents Cup and other professional tournaments, but one in which the members can’t play.

Instead, the West Course at Royal Melbourne was No. 3, while the East Course was No. 8.

Topping the new list was another sandbelt gem, Kingston Heath, made even more famous for Tiger Woods winning the Australian Masters last November before record crowds. New South Wales was No. 2.

“Kingston Heath was a consistent scorer across the board and was there for all to see when it successfully hosted the Australian Masters won by Tiger Woods,” said Steve Keipert, editor of the magazine.

The composite course at Royal Melbourne will host the Presidents Cup next year.

THORPE OUT: Champions Tour golf Jim Thorpe was sentenced to one year in prison for failing to pay more than $2 million in income taxes. Then came another punishment – this one from the PGA Tour.

Thorpe told Golfweek magazine that he received an e-mail last Friday from the PGA Tour informing him that he has been suspended. It presumably was for conduct unbecoming a professional – the tour does not comment or confirm player discipline.

Thorpe, 61, was not allowed to enter the Ace Group Classic this week in Florida.

“I don’t know the bylaws, and there’s probably something in the (regulations),” Thorpe told Golfweek. “I guess they feel they have to protect other players.”

CINK HIGHLIGHT: It’s not hard to find the highlight of the last year for Stewart Cink. Just check out the claret jug from winning the British Open at Turnberry for his first major.

More obscure is what happened last year at the Travelers Championship.

Cink didn’t realize until he arrived in Hartford, Conn., that this would not be an ordinary pro-am. Among the amateurs in his group was Los Angeles Dodgers great Sandy Koufax.

“I’ve played with a lot of celebrity types,” Cink said. “He was the guy the most interesting to play with. Since his retirement, he’s hardly been in the public.”

Koufax ended his Hall of Fame career seven years before Cink was born, so Cink didn’t know as much about him as he wanted. A few days after that pro-am, Cink checked the statistics “to see what he was all about.”

Among the most stunning numbers: In his last two seasons, Koufax had 53 victories and 54 complete games.

“It was a good education for me,” he said.

DIVOTS: Jim Hyler of North Carolina has been elected to a one-year term as president of the USGA. … Among the amateurs competing in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who will be playing with 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara. … The Volvo China Open is back on the European Tour schedule. It will be played a week after the Masters, on April 15-18, at Jinji Lake Golf Club. …The Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, held opposite the Match Play Championship, already has five major champions in the field, including David Duval and Mark Calcavecchia. … Nick Watney is now engaged, proposing to Amber Uresti (niece of Omar Uresti) on Monday after Torrey Pines.

STAT OF THE WEEK: The last time the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was completed on a Monday was in 2000, which also was the last time Pebble hosted the U.S. Open.

FINAL WORD: “If you can’t enjoy the view, you’re probably thinking about your golf too much.” – Luke Donald, on playing golf on Pebble Beach.