Round 1 of TOUR Playoffs Goes to Stricker

By Associated PressAugust 26, 2007, 4:00 pm
the Barclays Logo 2007HARRISON, N.Y. -- What looked like more heartache for Steve Stricker turned into the sweetest victory of his career.
After going 6 1/2 years and 146 tournaments without winning, Stricker birdied four of his last five holes Sunday at The Barclays for a stunning turnaround that gave him a 2-under 69 and a two-shot victory over K.J. Choi.
Steve Stricker
Steve Stricker gives his caddie hug after his impressive victory. (WireImage)
'It was hard, but it was fun,' Stricker said, his voice choking as tears streamed down the side of his face. 'I never knew if I was going to win again.'
It sure wasn't easy. Not with 10 players -- five of them major champions -- separated by three shots. And not with Choi holing two birdie putts that were a combined 95 feet, making it look as if he were destined to win.
Stricker, who already let four chances of winning slip away this year, refused to buckle.
And when his final birdie from 8 feet dropped into the cup, he raised his arms and hugged his caddie, Tom Mitchell, who first caddied for Stricker when he won the 2001 Match Play Championship in Australia.
Even without Tiger Woods, the inaugural PGA TOUR Playoffs got off to a rousing start.
Along with the fourth victory of his career, Stricker moved to the top of the FedExCup standings with 2,050-point lead over Choi, who closed with a 70. Rory Sabbatini, who had a share of the lead at the turn, closed with a 68 to finish another stroke back and moved up to No. 3 in the playoff race.
Woods skipped the first of four playoff events and tumbled to No. 4, nearly 5,000 points behind Stricker.
The next stop is the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, which starts Friday. There are three tournaments remaining before someone captures the $10 million deferred bonus, but all Stricker cared about was hoisting another trophy.
His last victory on U.S. soil came 11 years ago at the Western Open, when he was considered one of the bright young American players. But his game slowly began to slide until he lost his PGA TOUR card two years ago, and spent the winter in Wisconsin hitting balls from the inside of a remodeled trailer to a frozen driving range.
After four close calls -- two of them in majors -- Stricker finally became a PGA TOUR winner again.
Choi was going after his third victory of the year, and everything was falling his way. He took a share of the lead with a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 12, dropping his putter in surprise, then took the lead again with a 50-foot birdie putt on the 15th.
Stricker hung his head, but not for long.
He answered with a 12-foot birdie on the par-3 16th to regain a share of the lead, then hit wedge that stopped 4 feet from the cup for birdie on the 17th that gave him a one-shot margin. Choi hit his approach left of the par-5 18th green and could chip no closer than 15 feet, from which he made par.
Stricker finished at 16-under 268 and earned $1.26 million.
Geoff Ogilvy, playing down the road from his U.S. Open title last year at Winged Foot, closed with a 69 and tied for fourth with Mark Calcavecchia (65) and two-time Westchester champion Ernie Els (68).
Another shot back was Rich Beem, who had a share of the lead early in the final round and had to settle for a small consolation. He was at No. 134 in the playoff standings, and his tie for seventh moved him up to No. 113, getting him into the next round.
'I'm in next week,' Beem said. 'I've got to play just as well next week to get to Chicago' for the third event.
Doug LaBelle also picked up a minor victory. He closed with a 68, making a 6-foot birdie on his final hole, and wound up at No. 120 in the standings to qualify for the Deutsche Bank Championship. Had he missed the putt, his FedExCup season would have been over.
Ryan Armour and Bill Haas were among those who had a chance to move into the top 120 and avoid elimination, but Haas had four bogeys in a five-hole stretch on the back, and Armour had back-to-back bogeys late in his round.
Brett Quigley was sweating it, too, especially when he saw a scoreboard behind the 17th green that incorrectly projected him to finish at No. 121. He rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt, then birdied the 18th for a 67 to make it with room to spare.
'More drama than I needed,' Quigley said. 'I never felt that nervous trying to win a tournament.'
The Barclays didn't lack for drama at the top of the leaderboard, either.
A tentative start by the leaders allowed for someone to get hot and join the fray, and there were plenty of volunteers. Sabbatini ran off five birdies on the front nine. Calcavecchia had six birdies in a seven-hole stretch around the turn.
Phil Mickelson opened with three straight birdies, only to lose his momentum with a double bogey at No. 4 when he found trouble in the trees and missed a 4-foot putt. Mickelson shot 67 and tied for seventh, his first top-10 on the PGA TOUR since winning THE PLAYERS Championship in May.
Meanwhile, no one in the final group made a birdie until Stricker with a 10-foot birdie at No. 7. Even so, he had a share of the lead with Sabbatini as he headed for the back nine that seemed loaded with possibilities.
Choi did not figure to be in the mix.
He was 3 over for his round through eight holes and appeared to be out of contention until a two-putt birdie on No. 9, and a bunker shot to tap-in range for birdie on the 10th.
Then came his theatrics with the putter, the two long birdies on the 12th and 15th and left him smiling and pumping his fist.
The final act, however, belonged to Stricker.
He last played this tournament in 1996, tying for 60th, and thought so little of the place that he told his wife to 'take a picture because we're not coming back.' The best picture of all was Stricker posing with a trophy.
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