Jim Furyk hosted his 10th annual Exelon Invitational yesterday at The ACE Club in Lafayette Hill. In that time, almost anyone who is anybody in men's golf this side of Tiger Woods has participated. This time, Steve Stricker joined the ongoing list.

Not too long ago, you would have gotten serious odds against that ever happening. Probably from Stricker himself.

In 1998 and '99, he finished in the top five three times in a four-major span. By 2004, he had lost his fully exempt status on the PGA Tour. Going to the course became, as he put it, the equivalent of going to the dentist.

He tumbled to 337th in your world rankings.

Then, gradually, he rediscovered whatever it is that makes a difference. Was the Comeback Player of the Year in 2006. And won it again last season. As even Woods told him, an almost impossible double. In 2007, he won for the first time in 6 years. And made the American Presidents Cup team, while posting top 10s in three of the last eight majors.

Welcome back. Because he is one of the good guys.

"It's been a great ride, these last few years," he said before heading out to play 18 holes with Furyk, K.J. Choi and Aaron Baddeley to help raise money for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia. "Leading up to that wasn't a lot of fun. I decided to put a little more time and energy into my game to try and turn things around. Fortunately, they did.

"Last year was way beyond my expectations. But it's just nice to be feeling like I'm part of the game again. Coming to an event like this is always nice. I kind of fell off the map there. It makes you appreciate the things you're able to do out here, the people you meet, where you go. I never took them for granted, or anything. But it means much more [now].

"There's a lot of perks when you play well. To be able to help Jim out is an honor. This is all part of it. I've known Jim throughout my whole career. When he was at a different level, and I wasn't playing so well, that's just the nature of the game. You put in your time. There's going to be ups and downs. You try to battle through some of those down times and move on."

The U.S. Open tees off a week from Thursday at Torrey Pines (South Course), near San Diego, which is also the site of the Buick Invitational each winter. Woods, knee and all, and fellow Southern California native Phil Mickelson are the obvious favorites. But Furyk, who rarely plays the Buick, won an Open in 2003 and was second the last 2 years. Many feel Choi, who's ranked ninth, has the game that could make him the first Asian male to win a major. Baddeley (No. 18) held the 54-hole lead last June at Oakmont before imploding on Sunday. Sometimes you have to go through something like that.

Then there's Stricker, ranked seventh in the world and 19th on the money list, with four top 10s (including a runner-up) in 13 starts. His best showing at Torrey Pines was a 28th. Still, he has put himself into the discussion. Which sure beats worrying about your future.

"This game can be so difficult at times," he said. "You have to stay on top of yourself, all the time, on and off the course. There's really no [room for any] let-up. That's what I've learned over the years.

"The Open's always going to be tough. You have to be as patient as you can. You have to be on all aspects of your game. More so, you have to be on mentally. Even when you hit a good shot, you may end up making bogey. And you say, 'How did that just happen?' That's the biggest thing. You have to understand what that week is all about. You just have to let some of that slide off your back, deal with it the best you can. It's a grind for everybody. We're all going through the same thing.

"I've had opportunities to win [a major]. You're disappointed when you don't. You just have to keep going. That's the challenge."

He's certainly earned his doctorate. The story already has a huggable ending. But there's always room for an exclamation point.

"[Winning a major] would be the ultimate for me, a dream come true, especially from where I've been," Stricker said. "I'm 41. My career's kind of winding down. So I don't know how many more chances I've got."

Even if it's one, that's double what most folks would have given him when he was staring at those demons.

Tap-ins

The International Team of Korea's K.J. Choi (six birdies) and Australia's Aaron Baddeley beat Americans Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker in the best-ball match-play format, 3-and-1. A record amount of more than $300,000 was raised for charity, which brings the 10-year donation to well over $1 million. *