LOS ANGELES – Each victory is a reminder how far Steve Stricker has come in four years, when he lost his PGA Tour card and plunged to No. 337 in the world ranking.
His latest PGA Tour title – the fourth in his last 15 tournaments – raised questions about how much higher he can go.
Stricker won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday, just like everyone expected, even though Stricker might have been the only one who expected a six-shot lead to be so difficult to protect. His lead dwindled to two shots in a span of five holes, and only after Stricker made a 10-foot par putt on the 15th hole did he breathe easy.
“It was a challenge, to say the least,” Stricker said after closing with a 1-under 70 for a two-shot victory over Luke Donald.
The victory moved him to No. 2 in the world for the second time in his career. He also got there in September after winning on the TPC Boston, but that was when Tiger Woods was still around.
Now, Stricker effectively is the highest-ranked player who is competing until Woods returns from his self-imposed break while he tries to salvage his marriage from his extramarital affairs.
Stricker, as humble as his Midwestern roots, knows his place.
“We all know who the best player in the world is,” Stricker said. “I went down that road when he came out on tour. I tried to compare my game to his back in ’96 or ’97, and there was no comparison for my game to his back then. I’ll just continue to do what I do, and that’s practice hard and work at it and try to improve.”
That’s what he did after losing his card and failing Q-school at the end of 2005, cutting out the side wall of a trailer to hit balls into a patch of snow on a Wisconsin golf course. Just look at where it has brought him.
Two Presidents Cup teams. One Ryder Cup team. Earnings approaching $17 million since he lost his card. No. 2 in the world.
Is the comeback complete?
“Good question,” Stricker said. “I don’t know. One of my goals trying to come back was to obviously get my game in order and to win again, and I’ve done that. I hate to say the word ‘complete’ because I feel like I still have things to do. I came back from one part of my career that wasn’t so good to where I’m at now. But I still want to continue.
“I don’t want to quit what I’m doing, and I still work very hard at it.”
For a while, it looked as though Stricker might need a comeback to win at Riviera, a scary thought considering he started with a six-shot lead over Donald and J.B. Holmes.
The last time Stricker had such a big lead going into the last round was at the 1996 Western Open, and he went on to win by eight. That was too long ago to remember.
He felt defensive on the opening hole, the easiest at Riviera. The shot called for a 5-iron at the flag, yet Stricker wanted to be extra sure that he cleared the bunker, so he opted for a 4-iron that went into the rough behind the green. An easy birdie turned into a par.
He didn’t reach the second green, played away from the flag at No. 3, came up short at No. 4 and missed a 5-foot par putt.
“If I don’t win the tournament, you’re going to be looked upon as the guy that didn’t finish it off,” Stricker said. “Those thoughts run through your head, and the guys from behind, they have nothing to lose.”
Donald had his chances.
As Stricker was playing away from flags, Donald was aiming at them. He had birdie chances inside 20 feet on his first eight holes, converting three of them to cut the lead to two shots. Then came a tee shot to 10 feet on the six, and to 8 feet on the seventh, yet Donald missed both putts that could have really made Stricker sweat.
“If I got really hot with the putter, I could have maybe caught Steve,” said Donald, who closed with a 66. “He played nicely coming down the stretch, and I think he was a deserved winner. But at least I gave him a little run for his money.”
Stricker completed his third round with a 66 on Sunday morning of the rain-delayed event and was at 15-under 198. He was another good round away from matching the tournament record of 20-under 264 set in 1985 by Lanny Wadkins, the oldest scoring record at a PGA Tour event held at the same golf course.
Before long, he was worried about matching a PGA Tour record for blowing a six-shot lead, the largest ever (by Sergio Garcia at Quail Hollow in 2005 and Greg Norman at the Masters in 1996).
Alas, Stricker answered with back-to-back birdies at the turn, another birdie at the 11th after Donald holed a bunker shot, and suddenly, his lead was back to four shots. And then came more cautious play.
Only after he made the 10-foot par putt on the 15th did Stricker feel safe.
“My father-in-law always says there’s a defining moment when you’re going to win a golf tournament,” Stricker said. “And I think that was it right there. It allowed me to keep a three-shot lead going into the last three holes.”
Holmes shot a 67 and tied for third with Dustin Johnson, who had a 66.
Two-time defending champion Phil Mickelson didn’t come close in his bid to become the first player to win three straight years at Riviera. He closed with a 73 to finish 14 shots behind, and wound up slipping to No. 3 behind Stricker.