By Mark Lamport-Stokes
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Steve Stricker finds himself in surprisingly foreign territory ahead of this week's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.
Long regarded as one of the best putters in the game with a stroke that flows like fine honey, the 45-year-old American has been struggling on the greens in recent weeks.
"The last month has been a little unlike what I've been doing the last five or six years," Stricker, a 12-times winner on the PGA Tour, told reporters on Tuesday while preparing for Thursday's opening round.
"I just haven't been able to get the ball in the hole really as well as I have been over the last few years. But otherwise I'm hitting the ball fine, so I'm looking forward to this week.
"I put a lot of time in chipping and putting (practice) at home and I'm trying to get that a little bit straighter in my mind. Hopefully I'll put it all together this week. I enjoy the course. I love being here."
Stricker has fond memories of Olympic, having tied for fifth place when the U.S. Open was last staged here in 1998. He played in the final round of that year's edition with the eventual champion Lee Janzen.
However, he accepts that his own window of opportunity is beginning to close as he bids to win the first major title of an otherwise glittering career.
"I'm 45, my chances are probably dwindling a little bit, but I still feel like my game is pretty good," former world number two Stricker said. "I do a lot of good things still, I think. I keep the ball in play.
"Besides the last month or so, I've been playing fairly smart, but the last month has been a little different. I've thrown some shots away and really not taken care of my game the way I normally do.
"So hopefully with what's on the line this week I'll be a little bit sharper mentally and get things going."
Stricker won his most recent PGA Tour title at the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii but, despite his respected status among his peers, he does not include himself among the favorites for this week.
"I'm an underdog for sure, that's what I'm telling myself anyways," he grinned. "The way I played the last few tournaments, I'm not carrying a ton of confidence in here, but I've been playing well in spurts.
"There are so many good players and we've got to be looking at Tiger (Woods) or Phil (Mickelson) or Rory (McIlroy) or Lee Westwood, who won last week, younger guys that hit it further.
"But I'm not discrediting myself at all. I feel like I can hold my own and I've played well in prior U.S. Opens. If I play my game and I'm capable at what I'm doing, I can get myself in there."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in San Francisco; Editing by Frank Pingue)