Stellar play when he needed it most.
That’s what lifted Steve Stricker to the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship on Sunday at Firestone Country Club.
Like a man’s fortunes, golf leads can change with the wind.
Several times in the past two days Stricker had big leads disappear as if the golf gods were against him.
Yet, he survived a brief scare from defending champion and close friend Jerry Kelly on the back nine of the South Course before closing out his third major championship on the PGA Tour Champions with five consecutive pars to shoot a final-round even-par 70 for a 72-hole total of 7-under 273 and a six-shot victory.
It seemed so much closer and it was for portions of the day. While Stricker strung together five consecutive pars to finish, Kelly bogeyed four of the final five.
“It was hard,” said Stricker, whose fortunes changed down the stretch thanks to his solid finish and some unfortunate play by Kelly, who finished second after shooting 2-over 72 for a final 279. “It was a hard day.”
Stricker, who earned $450,000 for the victory, joined Arnold Palmer and Bernhard Langer as the only wire-to-wire winners of this event, which moved to Firestone three years ago.
“You know, I basically played with a lead all the way from the start of the tournament,” said Stricker, who birdied three of the final four holes on the front to extend what had been a four-shot lead at the start to five at the turn. “Had a big lead on Saturday and kind of let that slip away. It’s hard to play with a lead. I’m finding that out.”
It’s even harder when you are playing against your friend.
“I know he wants to beat me and I feel the same,” said Stricker, who will serve as the Ryder Cup captain in September. “But, we’re still friends and that’s the nice thing about it. And I said that to him walking up 18. I said it was fun but I don’t like it.”
Undoubtedly, the journeys by Palmer and Langer were less stressful than Stricker’s, who for the second day in a row was nearly done in by the back nine on the South Course.
He had begun the day with a 4-shot lead over Kelly and had a 5-shot lead at the turn before things began to unravel a bit, just as they did during Saturday’s third round when his 9-shot lead shrunk to three when he bogeyed three of the first six holes on the back and double-bogeyed another.
A similar scenario seemed to unfold Sunday as Stricker bogeyed the 11th and 13th holes and Kelly poured in a 15-foot putt for birdie on 13. The lead was two.
“You get it to two and you want to go for a kill shot with a 4-iron, probably not the smartest move,” said Kelly, whose 4-iron on the 625-yard 16th was not enough and led to a penalty shot and decisive bogey, his second in four holes and the first of three straight to finish the day.
Things really began to change on the 460-yard 14th. Kelly, who won here last year by two shots, hit his second shot into a greenside bunker and it led to a bogey to Stricker’s par. The lead was back to three.
A bigger break came two holes later. Needing to reach the green in two for an eagle opportunity, Kelly’s 4-iron hit the far bank and dribbled back into the pond fronting the green. The penalty shot and two putts resulted in a bogey. Striker chose to lay up and a wedge to 15 feet led to a kick-in par. All that was left was to sign the correct scorecard.
Fred Couples turned in the lowest round of the day with a 3-under 67 for a total of even-280 to share third place with David Toms, who followed a third-round 66 with a final-round 70.
Ken Duke, who began the day five shots behind, shot himself out of contention when he bogeyed four of his first six holes.
Palmer led from start to finish in winning the 1985 Senior Players at Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, and Langer, who has won 41 events on the Tour Champions list, followed suit in winning in 2015 at the Belmont Club outside Boston.
Steve Stricker -7
Jerry Kelly -1
Fred Couples E
David Toms E
Ernie Els +2
Jim Furyk +3