SOUTH BEND, Indiana — It’s not as if Steve Stricker went kicking and screaming to the PGA Tour Champions when he turned 50. But he did go somewhat reluctantly, convinced he could still win on the PGA Tour, but obligated to tee it up with the old guys on occasion because of his involvement with the American Family Insurance Championship in his hometown of Madison.
Still a part-timer on the Champions tour at age 52, Stricker thrust himself into the conversation for player of the year honors — in fact, he might be the front-runner — after his clinical dissection of the Warren Golf Course and a Secretariat-like runaway victory in the U.S. Senior Open.
Stricker started the final round Sunday with a six-shot lead, never led by fewer than five and won by a record-tying six. Time and again, he relied on his superlative short game on a day when his ball-striking was something less than Hogan-like for the first time all week. But he didn’t need to knock down flags. He just needed to avoid a Jean van de Velde-like collapse.
Stricker closed with a 1-under 69, was the only player to break par in all four rounds and finished at 19-under 261, breaking the previous U.S. Senior Open record of 264 held by Kenny Perry (2017). His streak of 57 consecutive holes without a bogey, which ended on No. 10 Sunday, smashed the previous record of 43 held by D.A. Weibring (2004).
“What a special week,” Stricker said. “I never was able to win a USGA event in my career, whether it was in the amateur ranks or when I turned pro. I had some good U.S. Open finishes, but this is it. So, it’s very special. Anytime you can win a USGA event, I always held those to kind of the highest of tournaments that we play in. It’s a great feeling to be able to hold that trophy and to be the Senior Open champion.”
Stricker, who made just two bogeys all week, was so dominant that Scott McCarron closed with a 64, the lowest round of the day by three shots, climbed into a tie for sixth … and still finished 14 strokes back.
“I’m just glad I haven’t had to play with him,” said Paul Goydos, who also tied for sixth. “It’s probably pretty demoralizing. He’s probably the best player over 50, and he’s a great putter and he has a lot of length and he does it all. He hasn’t really changed. He’s probably playing as well now as he’s ever played.”
Stricker admitted to a “tinge of orneriness” when he arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus, after losing in a three-man playoff days earlier in the AmFam Championship, won by fellow Madisonian Jerry Kelly. At the Senior Open, Kelly was on the other end, finishing in a tie for second with David Toms at 13-under 267.
Stricker and Kelly, friends going back to their junior golf days, were paired for the final two rounds.
“I told Jerry, I said, 'It’s awkward,'” Stricker said. “We’re friends. We go back to junior golf. I want to beat his brains in out there and he wants to do the same thing to me. But at the end of it all, we’re friends. I respect him. I love him and his family. So, it was hard, especially the last two days.
“But again, it provided me some motivation. He was the guy that won the tournament last week that I had the opportunity to win. And so, again, every time I looked at him, it provided me a little motivation to get it done.”
Stricker’s wire-to-wire victory here was a salve on the AmFam sting, and no one felt more vindicated than Nicki Stricker, his wife and caddie. Steve asked her for a rare read on what would have been the winning birdie putt on the 72nd hole at University Ridge, which he missed. He then three-putted on the first extra hole and was eliminated from the playoff.
“I think I took it harder than he did because he asked for my help on the last hole and I was wrong,” Nicki said. “I’d never been in that position before. He’s never asked me for help, so I did take that hard because I was wrong. I think it stung enough that he was on a mission this week.”
A 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, Stricker called this victory the biggest of his career. He had 13 top-10 finishes in the majors on the big tour, including four in the U.S. Open, but never was able to close the deal. He spent 30 years chasing a United States Golf Association title. Finally, he has one.
“I won some nice events on the (PGA) Tour but being a major out here, being a USGA event, a national championship, even though it’s on the senior level it’s still very special,” he said. “Like I said, I always held these USGA events to a higher standard. You wanted to play well at them. So, this one here is probably at the top. It’s a very special day.”
Stricker opened the final round with a birdie, then made eight consecutive pars. Kelly fell eight shots back with bogeys on Nos. 5 and 6, but picked up a shot with a birdie on the ninth hole and then climbed back to within five when he birdied No. 10 and Stricker bogeyed.
Kelly hit it close on Nos 13, 14, 15 and 16 but couldn’t convert the birdie putts. Stricker chipped in for birdie on No. 12 to go back up by six, and every putt Kelly missed after that was another proverbial nail in the coffin.
“He put himself in some tough spots at times where I got excited, like all right, here we go, and he got it up and down every time and up and in one time,” Kelly said. “You do that, it’s tough to catch. I had to make a run of birdies and I just didn’t do it.”
Stricker called his chip-in from 46 feet on the 12th, after missing the green short and right.
“Nicki and I had been talking that we’ve been looking for a chip-in,” he said. “Right before I chipped it, I said, ‘I’m still looking for that chip-in,’ and she’s like, ‘I am, too.’ So maybe the power of us both thinking about it, it came true. But that was a huge chip and got me that six-shot lead back again. I felt a little bit more comfortable.”
He parred in from there, and Kelly bogeyed No. 18 when a par would have given him solo second.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” Kelly said. “I’m always going to be disappointed and want to come back for more. That’s what drives me to the next week. It will just make me work that much harder on my week off and I’ll be ready to play next week.”
Stricker, winner of the Regions Tradition last month also by a six-stroke margin over Billy Andrade, now has won two Champions tour majors in a six-week span after winning none on the PGA Tour. He moves up to No. 2 on the Schwab Cup money list with $1,422,327. McCarron, the only three-time winner this year, is No. 1 with $1,902,205.
Suddenly, it’s a three-horse race for PGA Tour Champions player-of-the year honors between Stricker, McCarron (a three-time winner this year) and, possibly, Kelly, whose runner-up finish was his second this year to go with his AmFam Championship win and eight top-10 finishes (seven coming in the last eight weeks. That pursuit could factor into the way Stricker builds his schedule for the remainder of the year.
“Yeah, it’s a good question,” he said. “I’m on the fence with either (the John Deere Classic) or the Senior Players Championship (July 11-14). The Senior Players Championship is another major. If you were to win that, it gets you into the regular Players Championship, like this one gets me into the (2020) U.S. Open. It’s something I’ll think about this next week and what I want to do. John Deere is a special place for me but I’m still on that fence. Where do I go play?”
It’s a good problem to have.
Todd Schaap (a)
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