A burst of birdies at The Barclays carried Stricker to a 6-under 65 and allowed him to zoom past K.J. Choi and into the lead Saturday at Westchester Country Club, the first time he has held the 54-hole lead in nine years.
Choi overcame some errant tee shots on the back nine with a birdie-birdie finish to salvage a 70, leaving him only one shot behind. Hunter Mahan tied a tournament scoring record for the second time in five weeks, this one a 9-under 62 that took him from the middle of the pack to only two shots behind.
And then there was Rich Beem, perhaps the most desperate contender.
Needing a top-10 finish to avoid ending his season in these inaugural PGA TOUR Playoffs, Beem overcame a rocky start with an eagle on the ninth hole and a 69, giving him his best position in a final round since February.
But it all starts with Stricker, who was at 14-under 199, which tied the 54-hole record at Westchester.
He played in the final group at the British Open and was tied for the lead going into the back nine at the U.S. Open, fading both times.
'One of these times, it's going to come out in my favor,' Stricker said. 'I haven't been beating myself up about not winning any of those events, but obviously, I would like to win. It's been a long time since I've won, and I'm just going to try to bring as many positive thoughts to the table tomorrow as I can.'
For now, he was thrilled to simply be in this position.
Only four players were within six shots of Choi going into a steamy afternoon at Westchester. But the South Korea plodded along with pars as Mahan and others were attacking soft greens, and left behind was a tournament that had so many compelling possibilities.
Ten players were separated by five shots going into the final round, and that includes two-time winner Ernie Els, who finished his round of 68 with an eagle on the final hole.
Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy had a 69 and was in the group at 203 that included Woody Austin (66) and Rory Sabbatini, who was among four players who had a share of the lead Saturday until he started missing fairways and making bogeys.
Steve Flesch (67) and Kenny Perry (68) joined Els at 204.
Phil Mickelson looked like he might join the chase with four birdies at the turn that pulled him within three shots of the lead. But that was close as he got, and he was happy to follow up a double bogey on the 16th with back-to-back birdies.
'All I had to do was shoot under par on the back,' said Mickelson, who played the back nine in 2 over and shot 69.
The most impressive day belonged to Mahan, who also shot 62 to tie the Canadian Open record last month. That was in the first round, and Mahan was up-and-down the rest of the week and tied for fifth.
'I feel like it's going to be a little different tomorrow because I have a chance to win the tournament,' Mahan said.
So does Stricker -- again.
He was tied for the lead at the Wachovia Championship until a double bogey on the 16th hole, allowing Tiger Woods to breathe easier. He was among the leaders at the AT&T National and wound up second behind Choi.
But the most memorable moments were at the majors. Stricker was tied for the lead at Oakmont as he made the turn in the final round, only to double bogey two straight holes and shoot 40 on the back nine. And he played in the final group at Carnoustie, one shot behind early in the last round, before one of golf's best putters couldn't make anything inside 6 feet.
Stricker is playing some of his best golf, yet he hasn't hoisted a trophy since the 2001 Accenture Match Play Championship.
Despite all those misses, Stricker has rarely been this calm and forgiving.
It showed early on when his 6-iron disappeared into a slope of deep rough right of the par-3 first, so deep that he had to lift it out of the grass to make sure it was his. He had to two-putt from 30 feet for bogey, but he plugged along with by keeping the ball in play and taking advantage of the shots he got within 15 feet of the hole.
Beem also could have lost his mind, three-putting the opening hole, and dropping two more shots on the front nine. He was four behind and falling fast when he ripped a 3-wood onto the green at the par-5 ninth and holed the eagle putt.
His only regrets were not getting it any closer than 30 feet on the last two holes with a wedge in his hand.
'But I can't complain about anything,' Beem said. 'I played some pretty good golf today.'
That made what Mahan did simply spectacular.
He turned out around his fortunes at Westchester, much like he turned around his season. Mahan was going nowhere, certainly not to Oakmont, until some tough talk from his psychologist straightened him out at U.S. Open qualifying. But he followed a 73 with a 63 to qualify, and he has not finishing out of the top 25 since then, including his first PGA TOUR victory.
Mahan was in the middle of the pack at The Barclays until getting on track with a string of birdies and never letting up. None of his nine birdies was longer than 12 feet.
A victory by any of top seven players on the leaderboard would be enough for them to take over the No. 1 position in the playoffs. For now, Stricker's focus is on a trophy.