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Stricker starts of the year with a win in Hawaii

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP)—Steve Stricker had a silver trophy in his hands and awhite-and-purple lei around his neck, a photo opportunity at Kapalua that didn’tseem likely four months ago when he could barely hold onto a golf club.

He withdrew from the BMW Championship outside Chicago because of weakness inhis left arm. It was a nervous time, even when it was diagnosed as a neckinjury. The first doctor he saw recommended surgery, and Stricker nearly wentalong with it.

Stricker decided against surgery, opting for therapy, rest, a series ofmassages and two cortisone shots.

It looks like it was the right choice.

Stricker opened the PGA Tour season with a final round Monday on Maui filledwith more tension that he needed, even if he is used to it by now. Staked to afive-shot advantage at the Tournament of Championship, his lead was down to asingle shot after just six holes.

As he does so many times, though, Stricker’s short game bailed him out. Hebirdied back-to-back holes at the turn to regain control, answered Jonathan Byrd with a wedge into 2 feet for another birdie on the 16th, and wound up with a4-under 69 and a three-shot win for an ideal start to the year.

“It was tough,” said Stricker, who now has won eight times in his last 50tournaments. “I never let up today. It’s always tough trying to win, and it’seven more tough when you have a lead like I did. I’m very proud of what I didtoday.

“And it’s always cool to get a hug from your family walking off at theend.”

That was the best part of the day, seeing 13-year-old Bobbi Maria and5-year-old Isabella greet him on the 18th green. It was the second time he haswon when both his daughters were at the golf course. That never gets old.

Stricker finished at 23-under 269, three shots clear of Martin Laird (67).

The final round came down to those two, along with Byrd and Webb Simpson ,who each closed with a 68. All three of the challengers got to within one shotof Stricker, but not for long.

He has made a habit of losing big leads in the final round, and of holdingon for the win. Stricker is not sure what to make of these dynamics, althoughhe’s glad the outcome has been the same.

Last summer at the John Deere Classic, he lost a five-shot lead on the backnine and had to birdie the final hole for a two-shot swing to beat Kyle Stanley .A month earlier, he had a four-shot lead at the Memorial and hung on to win byone shot.

At Riviera two years ago, his six-shot lead was reduced to two shots afteronly six holes, before he steadied himself to win by two.

So this was nothing new.

“I’ve been there before. It’s not a great feeling, either,” Stricker said.“It’s just the nature of our game. I realize that, and I’ve gone through itbefore. It always seems close, and you always have to perform to get it done.”

The way his left arm felt four months ago outside Chicago had himquestioning whether he could.

Stricker turns 45 next month, and he knows his window is closing even iffully healthy. One doctor told him by having surgery he could be back in timefor the Presidents Cup the week before Thanksgiving in Australia. The moreadvice he sought, the more Stricker realized he would be better off trying totreat it with therapy.

He had a cortisone shot before the Tour Championship. He had another one theweek before Christmas, along with other therapy and a series of massages. Theidea is to manage this injury, and he feels a lot better about that after his12th career win.

Stricker felt stronger than he did last year, and that much was evident.

He played the final round with Byrd, with whom he also was paired during thetournament last year. There were times when Byrd was hitting his 3-wood fartherthan Stricker hit his driver. This year, Stricker was hitting it past Byrd attimes.

As for the chipping and putting? They remain Stricker’s biggest weapons.

“I don’t want to have surgery,” Stricker said. “I don’t think at thispoint I need it. I’m just going to go ahead and try to do this maintenance thatI’ve been doing the last couple of months and see if that’ll remedy the problem.And it’s been better, and my strength is better. I’ve got a couple cortisoneshots I think that have helped quite a bit.

“But from what my physical therapist says, it’s just something that I needbe on top of it all the time. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

If nothing else, he appears to be on top of his game, especially this earlyin the year.

Stricker hit the ball beautifully all week. The difference was the size ofthe hole: It started to look smaller.

Laird ran off three birdies on the front nine. Simpson made an eagle on thepar-5 fifth. Byrd make three straight putts, one of them for par, as they creptcloser to Stricker.

He was making a mess of a few holes, and a mess of the final round.

Stricker three-putted the fifth hole for par, then played a poor flop shoton the sixth that came up short and led to another bogey. Just like that, hislead was down to one shot.

“You realize you still have a chance,” Laird said.

Just not for long.

Stricker was angry with himself as he stood on the back of the sixth greenas Byrd made a short birdie. He stared at the ground, shaking his head.Perspective soon followed.

“I was kicking myself on the back of that green,” Stricker said. “I hadjust made two dumb plays. I was kind of beating myself up a little bit, notfeeling too good about what had just happened. But then walking down 7, I said,`We’re still all right.’ If I would have told myself early in the week, I have alead going down the seventh hole in the last round, I would take it.

“So I tried … to make myself feel good.”

Birdies helped him feel even better, starting with the 5-iron to 25 feetthat he poured in the cup on the par-3 eighth. Another birdie put his lead backat three shots, and no one got closer than two shots the rest of the way.