An easy Stricker victory not a foregone conclusion

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Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Steve Stricker won't have time to enjoy the Kapalua scenery if birdies again start mounting ahead of him.
January 09, 2012
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Here's what we learned from Sunday's third round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions:

• Five-shot leads on the PGA TOUR can disappear quickly, even in the hands of a consummate professional.

• Five-shot leads can be built back up even quicker, especially in the hands of a consummate professional.

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All of which should make things extremely interesting in Monday's final round, as Steve Stricker searches for his first TOUR win in the state of Hawaii.

The questions really are two-fold for the closing day of the TOUR's season opener: Will the rest of the field put heat on Stricker, as they did Sunday? If so, will Stricker respond in the same fashion?

Stricker took a most unusual path in maintaining the five-shot lead in which he started the day. But no matter how he got there, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions is his to lose. The rest of the field knows it will be tough to catch one of the TOUR's most consistent performers, who will start the day at 19 under.

"I fully expect him to go out tomorrow and post another good number," said Martin Laird, one of three primary pursuers along with Webb Simpson and defending champ Jonathan Byrd at 14 under. "For us sitting there at second, we know we are going to have to go really low.

"I don't know what it will it will take, but I'm guessing a minimum of 8 under, probably. I can't imagine him shooting much higher than 70.

"So it's going to be an interesting day."

Will it be as interesting as seven months ago when he held the lead entering the final round at Muirfield Village?

That was at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance. Stricker led by three shots after 54 holes, expanded the lead to four when he made the turn in the final round but had to hold on for a one-shot win. "It wasn't pretty," Stricker said afterward.

His playing partner that day was Jonathan Byrd. His playing partner on Monday at Kapalua will be Jonathan Byrd.

Hmmm, very interesting.

Byrd wasn't the one who made Stricker sweat in Dublin -- "He just drummed me," Byrd recalled -- but on a course in which he's already experienced success, Byrd should have plenty of confidence Monday. And being five shots down, there's no reason not to go for broke on a course that can yield birdies in bunches to the person with the hot hand.

"He's a tough guy to catch," Byrd said. "But I don't think any lead is too much.

"You never know when somebody is not going to have their best day. I certainly didn't think I was going to make six birdies in a row (which Byrd did in Friday's first round) when I started that stretch. That kind of stuff just happens."

Stuff just happens -- that's probably as good an explanation as any for what transpired on Sunday.

While his pursuers seemed to have plenty of gas, Stricker was stuck in neutral for the first 14 holes. He had just one birdie, failed to take advantage of the two par-5 holes on the front nine, and was even par on his round.

Stricker birdies No. 16

Steve Stricker jump starts his late Sunday rally with this chip-in birdie on No. 16 at Kapalua.

His five-shot lead had been whittled to one. "Pretty stagnant out there," is how Stricker described it. Frustrating, too. He told himself simply to be patient. Don't panic.

Fortunately for Stricker, he's dominated the finishing holes at the Plantation Course. He was 7 under on the final four holes in the first two days, and they were his best friends again on Sunday.

He birdied the par-5 15th while playing partner Simpson could manage only par, giving him a little breathing room. Then at the par-4 16th, he "stole a birdie" when his chip from 66-1/2 feet ran into the cup.

He followed with a birdie at the par-4 17th, and then another at the par-5 18th. Four consecutive birdies to finish his round. Meanwhile, Simpson was just even par in that four-hole stretch. Byrd and Laird failed to birdie the 18th.

Stricker's lead went from one back to five strokes just like that.

"Things were not really going the way I had hoped," Stricker said, "but I just kept telling myself to hang in there, I've got some birdie holes left."

Now he has 18 holes left. It may look like a foregone conclusion, but it isn't. The last thing Stricker wants to do Monday is have to rely on the finishing holes to save his round again.

If his lead is reduced to one stroke late in the back nine, who knows how the pressure of the situation will affect his game ... and others.

The even-tempered Stricker would appear to be impervious to such white-knuckle moments, but he himself admits that a large lead is difficult to maintain, especially on a course that can lead birdies in bunches. A hot hand can do serious damage out here.

"Hopefully I can get off to a little better start tomorrow," he said. "Make some birdies early, get my comfort level in a little bit better position than what it was today."

Steve Stricker: Closing in style
Steve Stricker takes a five-shot lead into Monday's final round thanks in large part to his performance on the closing holes at Kapalua. Here's a look at how he has fared on the final four holes this week.
No. 15
(Par 5)
No. 16
(Par 4)
No. 17
(Par 4)
No. 18
(Par 5)
4-Hole
total
Round 1 Birdie Birdie Par Birdie 3 under
Round 2 Eagle Par Birdie Birdie 4 under
Round 3 Birdie Birdie Birdie Birdie 4 under
Leaders comparison on 15-18: Stricker (-13), Martin Laird (-5), Webb Simpson (-4), Jonathan Byrd (-3)

And if he doesn't? Yes, things could get very interesting.

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