Stricker holds on
Then you wake up Sunday morning with a six-stroke lead, a target on your back and a trophy on a pedestal behind the 18th green.
Goodbye, go-for-broke birdies and ear-to-ear grins. Hello, jaw-clenching pressure and tentative swings.
Steve Stricker, who on Saturday broke the PGA Tour’s 54-hole scoring record, wound up holding on for dear life in the final round of the John Deere Classic. His lead, as big as seven strokes early in the round, got as small as two but never smaller.
In the end, the Madison golfer did what he needed to do to successfully defend his John Deere title. He shot a cautious 1-under-par 70 at TPC Deere Run and beat Paul Goydos by two shots for his second victory of the year.
“I wasn’t the same player I was the first three days for sure today,” Stricker admitted. “You’re just afraid to make a mistake, and it’s hard to play golf that way.”
The 43-year-old Edgerton native finished with a tournament-record 26-under 258 total. He set the Tour’s 54-hole scoring record (188) and made 31 birdies, one short of the record for 72 holes.
Though he played conservatively in the final round, it’s worth noting that he has converted his last three 54-hole leads into victories.
“This is why we’re playing, right here,” he said, pointing to the trophy in front of him at his post-round news conference. “I wouldn’t trade anything for this. This is the bottom line, right here. Doesn’t matter how you get it done. It’s pretty special when they hand you this at the end of it all.”
It was Stricker’s fifth victory over the last 14 months and the ninth of his career. He moved up to second on the FedEx Cup points list behind Ernie Els and to fourth on the money list with $2,963,122.
He also moved up to second on the Ryder Cup points list behind Phil Mickelson and all but locked up a spot on the U.S. team.
“My confidence has been building since 2006,” Stricker said. “It’s progressively gotten better, and I believe that I’m a better player today than I was four or five years ago.
“But I also believe that I can get better, and that’s what excites me.”
Stricker tried to take an aggressive mind-set into the final round, knowing the players behind him would be making birdies. He got off to a great start with birdies on the first two holes.
But he made a mistake on the par-4 fourth, pulling an
8-iron left of the green from a hanging lie (ball below his feet) in the fairway. He was short-sided, with little green to work with, and although he hit a decent pitch he missed the 8-foot par putt.
From that point on, it was a struggle similar to the one he endured at the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, when he frittered away most of a seven-shot lead in the final round before winning by two.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s a position you want to be in, with a big lead, but, you know, you have everything to lose.
“I was coming out to try and make birdies right away and for some reason it just kind of changed, and I don’t know why. You end up playing 30 or 40 feet on the safe side of the hole and you’re trying to two-putt. When I did hit it in there (close) a couple times, I didn’t hit very good putts.
“So it was kind of mounting, and it wasn’t a good feeling.”
Stricker played the final 14 holes in even par, with two birdies and two bogeys.
Meanwhile, Goydos, who opened the tournament with the fourth 59 in PGA Tour history, had nothing to lose and was aiming at pins. He birdied Nos. 2, 3, 5, 9, 10 and 13 (with a bogey at No. 8) to pull to within two strokes with five holes to go.
“I tried,” Goydos said. “I kept pushing and chipping and grinding and biting at him.”
Stricker pushed his drive into the trees on the par-5 17th and had to lay up. But then he hit a wedge from 91 yards to 12 feet and rolled in the birdie putt. It was huge because it enabled him to maintain his two-stroke lead when Goydos matched the birdie.
“I told myself, ‘You can make this putt and you need to make it,’ ” Stricker said.
Said Goydos, “It’s tough to play with a seven-shot lead, I’m sure. But when it really mattered, when it got down to the nitty-gritty, the guy hit as good a putt as you could hit, and that’s what champions do.”
Stricker’s drive on the final hole hit a tree to the right of the fairway; he couldn’t go for the green on the 476-yard par-4 and had to lay up. Then, from the middle of the fairway, Goydos hooked his 4-iron approach into the water left of the green and drowned his final chance.
Both players made bogeys.
Goydos shot a 66 and finished second at 24-under 260. Jeff Maggert (70) finished a distant third at 264.
Stricker boarded a chartered jet Sunday night for Scotland, where he will go into the British Open at St. Andrews this week with momentum and confidence.
“Majors are important,” he said. “Obviously, going over there tonight and then to Whistling Straits for the PGA (in August), I’ve got my goals set for these couple of majors coming up. I’d love to get in (contention) with an opportunity to win.”
“Doesn’t matter how you get it done. It’s pretty special when they hand you this (trophy) at the end of it all.”