Steve Stricker began the day with a five-shot lead going into the final round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but it didn’t turn out to be as much of a runaway victory as we expected. The 44-year-old veteran (who turns 45 next month) encountered a few bumps before shooting three-under 69, 23-under total to win (for the ninth time in his 40s) by three shots.
Martin Laird, Webb Simpson and Jonathan Byrd all got off to hot starts, while Stricker looked shaky (similar to Sunday’s third round), missing short putts early in his round. He failed to hit the green on No. 6, pushing it in a “gnarly” area and then fumbled the short putt to post a bogey — at which point his lead had dwindled to just one stroke. Standing behind the sixth green, he shook his head in disappointment.
“I had just made two dumb plays,” said Stricker, who was as usual a little teary-eyed at the start of his post-victory presser. “I knew that putt at 5 was going to be fast, and I ended up hitting it four or five feet past the hole. And then I should have just got that ball on the green at 6… I was kind of beating myself up a little bit not feeling too good about what had just happened.
“But then walking down 7, I said, all right, we’re still all right. I mean, if I would have told myself early in the week, if I have a two-shot lead going down the 7th hole in the last round, I would take it. So I kind of tried to reverse it a little bit and make myself feel good.”
But he’s no stranger to losing big leads and then managing to still walk away with the victory — just two examples are last year at the John Deere and Memorial — and he knows it.
“I have been there before,” he said. “It’s not a great feeling, either. But you know, it’s just the nature of our sport. If I would have made a couple putts early on, if I would have made a birdie at 5 – I hit a good shot in there at 1, left it right in the hair short — and if I could have made a couple putts early on, I could have made it a little bit easier. But always, it doesn’t matter if it’s me or anybody else, always in the final round it gets close at some point in time. You know, it’s just the nature of our game. I realize that, and I’ve gone through it before.
“And I was comfortable today. That’s what I was really proud of. I hit the ball probably the best I’ve hit it out of any of the days.”
The momentum swung back in his favor on No. 8. He rolled in a 23-footer for birdie — the most important putt and/or shot of the day — and that’s when I could have scripted the rest. In other words, I knew it was over. (Aside: I watched most of the front nine from the Golf Channel’s control room trailer — where they coordinate the telecast and the cameras — which was kind of a cool experience. There’s so much happening at once. Definitely need stellar communication skills to direct the action.)
“It’s an uncomfortable situation when you start to lose your lead and see everybody playing well,” said Stricker. “I’m watching the board. I want to know where everybody is at, and I see what they’re doing. But that little stretch at 8 and 9 really kind of calmed me down a little bit. And that I think was the difference today.”
Slow play dominated the conversation on Twitter for most of Monday. World No. 1 Luke Donald didn’t mince words and rattled off six tweets on the topic. In his first two, he wrote: “Sounds like slow play is already an issue the 1st week of the
@PGATOUR season and it’s 2 somes. Sort it out please….” and “It’s not that hard, be ready when it’s your turn. Slow play is killing our sport.”
Good thing Stricker finished things off. Otherwise, that tireless topic probably would have been the main storyline (coughJonathanByrdcough), though it was really ridiculous (I was standing by 13 green when Stricker/Byrd had just teed off 11 and Simpson/Laird were halfway down the fairway on 13).
Another aside: David Toms didn’t have trouble getting his way around today. He was first off by himself and played in two hours, 31 minutes. In related news, I was riding in a golf cart and a car leaving the clubhouse parking lot almost ran us over. I joked, “Someone’s in a rush!” I turned around and saw it was David Toms. It took me a minute, but then I remembered Toms, an LSU alum, was probably excited for a big game tonight — LSU vs. Alabama in the BCS Championship. He had a solid four-plus hours to get ready.
This stat might surprise you, but when you think for a minute, it’s not so shocking — Stricker has won more than any other PGA Tour player since 2009 with 8 titles.
Yet he doesn’t feel it gets any easier for him despite the experience.
“It’s difficult to win, or I find it very difficult to win,” he said. “Whether you have a big lead or one shot or are behind, everybody is so good and they come out firing. They’ve got really nothing to lose and I’ve got everything to lose at that point…I’m happy that I get off to those big leads. I’m not so happy that I let everybody back in, but yet I’m happy that I’ve been able to finish them off.”
So are we. The best news is Stricker and his family have already earned a trip back to Kapalua next year.
“It’s a great place to start (the season),” he said.
I couldn’t agree more.
(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)