Stricker's experience could prove to be difference Sunday

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January 09, 2011
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- If you just consider the various strengths of the three co-leaders on the golf course, Robert Garrigus would seem to be the favorite going into Sunday's final round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

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After all, no player on the PGA TOUR was longer off the tee last season than Garrigus. He knocks it a mile, and that's the kind of player who can take advantage of the long, wide-open Plantation course.

No player in fact, had a longer drive on Saturday than Garrigus' 385-yard pop at the closing hole, a drive that was, in his own words, "annihilated" and eventually led to a dramatic 57-foot putt for eagle.

"The course definitely favors long hitters," said Jonathan Byrd, who's tied with Garrigus at 18 under. "There's no doubt about that."

But before we start handing Garrigus a trophy, a big check and a flower lei to wear around his neck, there's one other factor to consider.

The other player tied with Garrigus and Byrd is Steve Stricker, and his world-class ability -- he's No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking -- doesn't seem confined to a particular type of course. That probably has something to do with his putting (not to mention his stellar iron play).

It was certainly no accident that Stricker shot the lowest round of the day, an 8-under 65, in drastically different conditions than the first two days. The benign trade winds were replaced by unusually stiff (and cool) Kona winds and no one adjusted better than the nine-time TOUR winner.

"I don't have an advantage over a guy who makes everything inside of 10 feet," Garrigus said. "Steve Stricker is one of the best putters in the world."

So there you have it for the three players who have distanced themselves from the rest of the 32-man field at the PGA TOUR's season-opening event.

One is long off the tee. Another is deadly on the greens. And the third, Byrd, is probably a little of both.

Those three claimed one-third shares of the lead in different ways on Saturday, and now they sit three shots ahead of everybody else. While that doesn't mean someone else couldn't make a huge run on Sunday to steal the title, it may take something close to the course record of 62 (held by K.J. Choi) to catch one of the top three.

Garrigus thinks 24 under could be the winning number. If that's the case, then Carl Pettersson, currently fourth on the leaderboard, would need to shoot 64, and Matt Kuchar, in fifth, would need to shoot 63. Everybody else would need to tie the course record.

"But really, there's no number for me tomorrow," Garrigus said. "I'm just going out there and play one shot at a time and go have some fun and enjoy the scenery."

That's what Garrigus has been doing all week, even on Saturday during his shaky start when he double-bogeyed the first hole and bogeyed the second to quickly give away the 36-hole lead.

He then thought about the fact that he was opening the season in a champions-only event for the first time in his career. He thought about the postcard-perfect views along the course. And he thought about the 16 holes that were still left that favored his game, even though Saturday's winds switched from benign trade winds the first two days to unusually stiff and cool Kona winds from the south.

He turned to his caddie, Mark "Shoestring" West, and could barely contain a smile.

"I'm like, 'This is awesome. I've doubled the first hole and bogeyed the second hole and I could care less,' " said Garrigus.

But how much will he care on Sunday when the championship hangs in the balance?

Thanks to his win last year at the Fall Series finale, the Children's Miracle Network Classic, Garrigus has a two-year exemption. A win on Sunday would extend his exemption through 2013, but as he said Saturday, "I don't have to win this tournament."

Then he added: "But I'd really like to."

So would Byrd, who got here by virtue of his historic win at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Childrens Open when he became the first TOUR champion to win with a playoff hole-in-one.

That happened in late October ... and the aftereffects have yet to subside. He posted a 6-under 67 on Saturday to join Stricker and Garrigus as the only players to shoot all three rounds in the 60s this week.

"I am kind of riding some of those vibes and some of those good feelings," Byrd said. "I feel like I've kind of got back into that groove pretty quick from some of the good things I was doing in Vegas."

But for all the good feelings and picturesque scenes this week, things will turn deadly serious on Sunday. The working vacation part of this week is over for the leaders. A championship is on the line.

And of the three co-leaders, no player has more experience at winning than Stricker.

"I treat it as work," Stricker said about this week. "You know, it's a great place to work, don't get me wrong this week. But yeah, I'm trying to get off to a good start and play well here this week."

He's got one more day on Maui. Sounds like he wants the make the most of it.

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