By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Steve Stricker could certainly do with a bit of Masters payback after giving his good friend Tiger Woods a valuable putting lesson during last month's WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami.
Helped by Stricker's advice, Woods went on to triumph by two shots over his fellow American at Doral, then won the Arnold Palmer Invitational on his next start to cement his status as a hot favorite for this week's Masters at Augusta National.
While Woods returns with plenty of swagger to a venue where he is a four-times champion, Stricker remains bemused by his own relatively mediocre record in the year's opening major, despite his reputation as one of the best putters in the game.
"For the most part I've struggled here," Stricker told reporters on Monday ahead of Thursday's opening round. "I'm starting to feel a little bit more comfortable going around here but there are still a few things I haven't figured out.
"I've gotten in my way mentally here I think more times than not ... just not committing to shots, not committing to lines, feeling a little overwhelmed about this place at times."
Stricker's honey-smooth putting stroke is widely envied by his peers and he seems perfectly equipped to cope with the lightning-fast, heavily contoured greens at Augusta National.
In 12 previous Masters appearances, however, he has missed the cut five times while recording just two top-10s with a best finish of joint sixth in 2009.
"It's a challenging spot and it's a challenging course," said the 46-year-old Stricker, who played 14 holes in practice with Woods on Sunday. "You've got to suck it up on a lot of shots and hit quality shots, and I haven't done that at times."
Stricker, whose best major finishes include three top-sixes at the U.S. Open and a runner-up spot at the 1998 PGA Championship, feels he has suffered at the Masters in recent years because of fairways which have become increasingly lush.
"You need to spin the ball here, and I'm not a spinner of the ball," the American world number eight said. "I bring it in with some height, but I don't put a lot of spin on it, and I think that's a negative for me here.
"And I'm coming in with usually a club or two more than some of these big hitters. But you know, shorter hitters have proven to have done well here over the years here, too ... Weirsy (Mike Weir) winning and Zach Johnson winning.
"I hit it just about the same distance as them. They have proven that you don't need to bomb it to win here."
Asked whether Woods had given him any Masters advice during their practice round on Sunday, Stricker replied with a smile: "Ah, no. We we're talking about pitching and chip shots and a little wedge play.
"We were talking about that a lot. I was asking him what he does and what he tries to do, his action on the way back and on the way through. It's mutual. We try to help out one another every once in awhile.
"It's just when things pop up. I'm not afraid to ask him. He's the best player in the world. He's ranked number one now again, and it's fun to bounce some ideas off him here and there."
It has been eight years since Woods won his fourth green jacket at the Masters, his private life having imploded at the end of 2009 as a string of extra-marital affairs was exposed, but Stricker fully expects Woods to be in the thick of the title hunt on Sunday.
"He's hitting it nicely," Stricker said of Woods who has triumphed three times in his last five PGA Tour starts. "Looks like he's got a ton of confidence in that putter, too, which you need to go around here.
"It looks like he's comfortable in his game and what he's doing. I expect him to be in the mix come Sunday for sure."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)