Tournament of Champions: Steve Stricker Surges Late to Maintain the Lead

Carlos TorresContributor IJanuary 9, 2012

Stricker struggled early but found a new gear on the last four holes to stretch his lead again.
Stricker struggled early but found a new gear on the last four holes to stretch his lead again.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Steve Stricker struggled for 14 holes, but finished with four straight birdies to finish at 19-under (par) and maintain a five-shot lead at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Stricker started the day five shots ahead of Webb Simpson and saw his lead shrink to one shot as late as the 14th hole.

This round felt like a thoroughbred horse race—the kind where the front runner goes up and gets a big lead early, sees the stalkers threaten him, but waits and waits until the home stretch and then unloads his reserve and stretches his lead again for the win.

Simpson, Martin Laird and Jonathan Byrd were putting the pressure on Stricker. But, the homestretch—Holes 14 through 18—was coming, and Stricker had played those at nine-under (-par) in the first two rounds.

He had them just where he wanted, right?

Stricker had to settle for par on the front-nine, par-five holes, mostly thanks to bad pitches he made both times.

But, on the first par-five hole on the back nine—the 15th hole—his approach shot was within 29 feet of the hole. His eagle-putt try missed just inches from the cup, and Stricker tapped it in for the birdie.

Then, the turning point came on the par-four 16th hole. After leaving his approach shot off the green, he holed out his pitch-shot from 22 yards away for the birdie.

It turned out to be a two-shot-swing hole since Simpson made bogey, and Stricker's lead stretched back to three.

Order had been restored, and the message was sent loud and clear; Stricker was back in command.

His touch was back, and he closed with two more birdies to stretch his lead back to the five-shot margin he started the day with.

Following Stricker on the leaderboard at 14-under (par) are defending champion Jonathan Byrd, Webb Simpson and Martin Laird.

Kevin Na and Bryce Molder are tied for fifth at 11-under (par), and Harrison Frazar is in seventh place at 10-under (par).

Twenty of the 27 players today shot rounds under par.

Simpson, who played alongside Stricker today, was aggressive with his shots and seemed to feed off the leader's struggles. And he needed to be if he were to cut into Stricker's lead.

He cut the lead to three on the par-three eighth hole with a nice 21-foot birdie putt from the right side of the green.

Then on the par-four 10th, Simpson hit his second shot from 101 yards away to roll about 10 feet from the hole. He made the birdie putt and was within two of Stricker.

After another birdie on the 12th hole, he was within one shot, but that was as close as he would get. Then came the bogey on the par-four 16th, and he was back three shots.

Simpson still had a shot at an eagle after a gutsy approach shot on the par-five 18th hole. With the hole location on the front of the green, he went for it with a four-iron from 246 yards away.

The shot reached the green, just past the hole, and stopped 16 feet away on the edge of the ridge. An inch longer, and it would have been a 50-foot try. Simpson's eagle try just brushed the edge of the cup, and he settled for the birdie. With that, he missed out on the chance to be in the last group with Stricker for the final round.

Jonathan Byrd, the defending champ, will be with Stricker instead. He made a remarkable comeback today just to be in contention. Byrd was nine shots back after bogeys on the second and third holes. 

But then, he made birdie on the par-four fourth, followed by an eagle on the par-five fifth to get back on track. He started the back nine with birdies on four of the first six holes, but could not get another one the rest of the way.

Byrd had one more birdie shot with an 11-foot-birdie-putt try on the 18th hole, but missed it just right of the cup. He shot six-under (par) for the day.

Martin Laird also shot six-under (par) today. His lone blemish on the card was a bogey on the par-three 11th hole. His drive reached the rough on the right of the green and could not get up, and it was downhill from there.

Kevin Na, who finished on fire yesterday with his eagle-eagle finish, made a birdie on the tough opening hole and looked like he would carry that momentum into today's round.

Even after his bogey on the third hole, Na made consecutive birdies on the next two holes. However, he played even-par the rest of the way and never became a threat to the leaders.

Bryce Molder played his round today at six-under (par) and had the shot of the day. On the par-four 14th hole, his approach shot from 77 yards away was past the hole, but spun back and found the bottom of the cup for the eagle.

The lowest round of the day belonged to Harrison Frazar  at seven-under (par). His solid play was capped by his 35-foot eagle putt on the par-five 15th. Frazar's only bogey of the day came on the par-three eighth hole.

Nick Watney, Rory Sabbatini, Ben Crane and Johnson Wagner also had good rounds today as they shot five-under (par) for the round.

Watney and Wagner were the biggest movers of the day, as they moved up nine spots into a tie for 12th place at seven-under (par).

Crane and Sabbatini are in a tie for eighth place at eight-under (par), along with Chris Kirk and D.A. Points.

The action continues tomorrow at 10:55 a.m. local time. The tee times for Round 4, as published on the PGA Tour webpage, are as follows:

Plantation Course at Kapalua Tee No. 1
Time Players
8:55 am Toms, David
9:05 am Steele, Brendan Vegas, Jhonattan
9:15 am Baddeley, Aaron Bradley, Michael
9:25 am Woodland, Gary Stallings, Scott
9:35 am Haas, Bill Bradley, Keegan
9:45 am O'Hair, Sean Watson, Bubba
9:55 am Piercy, Scott Wilson, Mark
10:05 am Watney, Nick Choi, K.J.
10:15 am Points, D.A. Wagner, Johnson
10:25 am Sabbatini, Rory Kirk, Chris
10:35 am Frazar, Harrison Crane, Ben
10:45 am Molder, Bryce Na, Kevin
10:55 am Laird, Martin Simpson, Webb
11:05 am Stricker, Steve Byrd, Jonathan

- Carlos Torres


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