Steve Stricker might be tempted to dream of the traditional winner’s lei draped around his neck after building a five-shot lead going into the final round of the Tournament of Champions.
No one has ever lost a lead that large since the PGA Tour’s season opener moved to Kapalua in 1999.
Stricker, though, probably knows better.
All he has to do is look back to the Memorial last year, when he had a four-shot lead with nine holes to play—and a three-shot lead with only five holes to play—and hung on to win by one shot.
Or he could recall the Northern Trust Open at Riviera two years ago, when he led by six shots after 54 holes. Five holes into the final round, his lead already was down to two shots and he was starting to sweat in the cool weather of California in February. He held on to win by two shots over Luke Donald.
If his memory is short—he does turn 45 next month—all Stricker has to do is consider Sunday at Kapalua.
He started the third round on another gorgeous day in paradise with a five-shot lead, and he walked off the 18th green with a 4-under 69 to lead by the same margin over defending champion Jonathan Byrd (67), Martin Laird (67) and Webb Simpson (69).
Only it wasn’t that simple.
Stricker had played the par 5s in 9-under par the opening two rounds. In the third round, he had to get up-and-down just to save par on the par 5s on the front nine. He had his first three-putt bogey of the week on the par-3 eighth.
His lead was down to three shots at the turn, then two shots when Simpson birdied the 10th, and finally one shot when Simpson had a tap-in birdie at the 12th, and Byrd made four birdies in five holes ahead of them.
“You’re playing with a five-shot lead. It’s a tough situation,” Stricker said. “I’ve been there before, and it’s hard. I find it very difficult. You’re in a position where you don’t want to screw up, but yet you’re on a course that birdies can be made and guys can come from a ways back. You need to make birdies. It’s kind of that fine line.”
The good news for Stricker on Sunday is that he never lost his patience, and he never lost the lead.
Simpson, who played in the final group with him, twice had birdie putts from the 30-foot range to share the lead. Byrd had a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th that he left woefully short. And once Stricker got to the closing stretch on the Plantation Course, he played it the same way he had the opening two rounds.
Stricker ran off four straight birdies, including a chip-in from the front of the 16th green, to restore his cushion. Through three rounds, he has played the five-hole closing stretch in 13-under par.
“That was key to finish that way,” said Stricker, who was at 19-under 200.
At least he knows what to expect on Monday.
The only other PGA Tour event that ends on a Monday—at least on purpose— is the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, and that’s only because it ends on Labor Day.
The tour thought it would try something new by taking the Tournament of Champions into a Monday. The idea was to get away from the NFL playoffs, even though Tim Tebow was done working his magic in the last playoff game as the leaders were making their way up the ninth fairway. The tournament is supposed to end in time for the BCS Championship game.
That shouldn’t be a problem for LSU alum David Toms, the only player yet to shoot par this year who will tee off as a single in the morning. The way play has gone the last few days, the tournament should end before kickoff, although even in twosomes, the third round stretched nearly 4 1/2 hours.
It was a beautiful day to be on the Plantation Course. As the last group walked toward the 10th green, in the Pacific below a pair of humpback whales were flipping their tails furiously, captivating the gallery. Behind the 11th green offers a splendid view of Honolua Bay, and the surf was sensational. Even from atop cliffs, it was easy to see the curl, and surfers taking on more than they could handle.
For some of the players, the best sight was the leaderboard.
Players were making birdies, even eagles. Stricker was going nowhere. He made the turn in even par, and suddenly several players were right back in the hunt.
“I wasn’t making any birdies, and it seemed like everybody else was,” Stricker said. “I knew it was going to be tough. When you’re leading a golf tournament, it’s just hard to keep that momentum. When you’re not making birdies, you feel like you’re letting things slip away. I felt everyone was coming after me, and I was coming back to the pack.”
A decent round by Stricker should be enough to take home the win.