SILVIS, Ill. – As well as he’s been playing lately, Steve Stricker believes that even better days are ahead.
With his second straight victory in the John Deere Classic on Sunday, Stricker has two victories this year and another $792,000 in the bank. He can face the many challenges in the British Open at St. Andrews this week with confidence.
At 43, Stricker has a good thing going. For starters, he’s ranked No. 4 in the world.
“My confidence level has been building since 2006,” Stricker said. “That season was a good season for me and it’s progressively gotten better. I believe 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, because I still feel like there’s things that I can improve on and get better at.”
For now, he’s content with another Deere title, especially after he had to work so hard on the final day to get it.
Ahead by seven strokes early in the round, he saw his lead over Paul Goydos dwindle to just two with five holes to play. But he maintained it the rest of the way, thanks largely to a critical birdie putt on No. 17, and closed with a 1-under 70,
“It was a tough day,” Stricker sighed. “I’m glad it worked out.”
For a while, he had to be wondering if it would.
He certainly didn’t display the type of precision he had shown in the first three rounds while setting a PGA Tour scoring record for 54 holes. But he showed the resolve he needed down the stretch, when he made just enough shots to hold on.
“I wasn’t the same player as I was for three days for sure,” he said. “You’re just afraid to make a mistake and it’s hard to play golf that way. I thought I got off to a good start. I wasn’t backing down. I was coming out to try to make birdies right away.
“For some reason, it just kind of changed and I don’t know why.”
Stricker endured the same kind of final round in his other victory this year, the Northern Trust Open at Riviera in February. He took a six-stroke lead into the final 18 holes of that tournament, and like this one, ended up winning by two.
“I reflected back to Northern Trust a lot,” Stricker said. “It was pretty much the same scenario. I just kept doing my thing, tried not to make a mistake, tried to put it in the smart side of the green, give myself a putt at it and force the guy to come and make birdies and try to catch me.
“I just didn’t want to hand him a shot here or there and give it away.”
Stricker finished at 258 – 26 under and a record for the tournament. Goydos, who dazzled the golf world with a 59 in the opening round, shot a solid 66 that on many other days would have been good enough for a victory.
But he simply had too much ground to make up.
“Strick was hard to catch,” Goydos said. “I tried and kept pushing and chipping and grinding and biting at him and doing what I could. But in the end, the putt he made on 17 was a world-class putt. That’s what top-five players do, that’s what Ryder Cup players do.”
Goydos did receive a nice consolation prize. His second-place finish qualified him for the British Open, so he joined Stricker and about two dozen others from the tournament on the two jets Deere officials chartered to fly them directly to Scotland.
Stricker started Sunday’s round with a six-shot lead and quickly bumped it to seven with a 7-foot birdie putt on the first hole. But he had to battle through the rest of the round before essentially sealing his victory at the 17th.
After driving into the trees right of the fairway for the second straight day, Stricker punched out to 91 yards, right in front of the green, then knocked a sand wedge to six feet. Measuring the putt carefully, Stricker tapped the ball and as fans yelled “Get in the hole,” it dropped.
“I told myself you can make this and you need to make this,” he said. “I look back at some of the big putts that I’ve made and there’s nothing to be scared of and I rolled it in. So that was a big putt. To go into the last hole with two shots instead of one was huge.”
Goydos also birdied 17 to stay two behind, but his last hope died when he hit into the water on 18. Stricker bogeyed the hole after hitting a tree with his tee shot, but it didn’t matter – he was a champion again.
“After I hit the tree, my objective was just to get it down there where I could get my third shot on the green and make a 5 and force him to make a birdie,” Stricker said. “I don’t have to make it, it doesn’t have to be pretty. I just wanted to win and fortunately, it worked out.”
Now it’s on to St. Andrews for a difficult course and, if conditions don’t improve, some nasty weather.
“It’s a tough turnaround,” Stricker said. “But I’ve got to get out there and get some golf under my belt and try to learn a few things.”