HARRISON, N.Y. - In a PGA Tour that's gone increasingly buff, a Tour where even 44-year-old Vijay Singh feels the need to change trainers and pump up his already intense workouts, Steve Stricker remains an anomaly.
"I don't work out," he laughed.
That's not stopping Stricker from working his way to the top of the leaderboard in the first of the FedEx Cup playoff tournaments. Stricker moved to 14-under with a 6-under 65 Saturday in The Barclays, wrestling the lead away from K.J. Choi, who was on a path to being a professional weight lifter before he switched to golf.
Even today on the fairways, a glance at the well-built Choi next to the skinny Stricker makes some think: mismatch.
But Choi was the one who could not hold the weight of his weekend lead, losing control of his high fade in a 1-under 70 to fall one shot back of Stricker at 13-under heading into Sunday's final round at Westchester Country Club. Hunter Mahan and continuing FedEx Cup surprise Rich Beem (69) are both two shots back at 12-under, but they arrived there in very different manners.
Playing early in the afternoon, Mahan left this old course looking defenseless with a birdie barrage and a course-record-tying 9-under 62. At one point, Mahan birdied seven of 10 holes and had many of the more well-known pros staring up at the fancy electronic scoreboards just like the fans.
For Mahan, it was in many ways a victory over time. He came 30 seconds away from being disqualified from the tournament on Friday for missing his tee time. With 90 seconds left until his name was called, the starter dispatched Mahan's caddie to find the nowhere-to-be-seen pro. Mahan came running out with a half minute to spare.
If Mahan hadn't made it on Friday, he never would have had the chance to tee it up for the 62 on Saturday.
Stricker knows all about how cruel time can be too. The 40-year-old came onto the Tour as a hotshot rookie in the mid-1990s, but he struggled through a stretch from 2002 to 2005 where he missed cut after cut after cut. At one point, Stricker dropped to 149th on 151-man money list.
"There was a time where I wondered whether I was going to make cuts or not, let alone whether I was going to ever lead a tournament," Stricker said. "And I don't want to talk about that anymore. And you shouldn't bring it up either."
When Stricker plopped a lob wedge straight down to within three feet of the cup to oohs from the gallery around the 17th hole Saturday, those days seemed long gone. That was just one of the gimmie birdies in Stricker's 65.
Still, he has not won a tournament in six years and his recent track record near the lead on Sunday is anything but encouraging. Sticker blew up in the final round of this year's British Open after being in the final group and shot 4-over the final nine at Oakmont after taking the lead in the U.S. Open.
That's enough to make Rory Sabatini (69 Saturday), Woody Austin (66) and Geoff Ogilvy (69), all four shots back at 10-under, feel they're very much within range of victory. Ernie Els is the biggest name among a trio at five back after a 3-under 68 Saturday powered by his fourth eagle of the week.
"It gives me half a chance for tomorrow," Els said.
Els could move all the way from 19th to first in the Cup standings, past the absent Tiger, with a win. Not that he professes to understand any of that.
"I'm a foreigner," he grinned. "I don't know anything about your American playoff system in sports. We play World Cup rugby or World Cup cricket. That's the playoffs I know about."
Mahan isn't raising his game for the playoffs. It's been at this level almost all summer. He hasn't finished out of the top 25 in any tournament he's played this summer. He took 13th at the U.S. Open, sixth at the British Open, 18th at the PGA Championship and first for his first career win at the Travelers.
The run caught the eye of Jack Nicklaus who chose Mahan as one of his two wildcard selections for the U.S. President's Cup team. Now Mahan's trying to prove it's not just a streak.
"You know I think some guys go on hot streaks and they just kind of go away after," said Mahan, who now has two 62s this summer. "I don't think there's any reason for that. I think if you're a good player, you're a good player. Look at the top players, they just keep playing good. They're not on hot streaks. They're good.
"I feel like my game is capable of that."
Stricker admits he didn't know how capable he was of responding to opening with a bogey on the par-3 first Saturday. He righted himself with two birdies in the next four holes and when the brash Sabbatini eagled the par-5 ninth to grab a share of the lead, it was Stricker, playing a group behind, who responded. His 3-under 32 was the lowest back nine among the late afternoon contenders.
Good practice, Stricker figures, for today's late afternoon.
"Obviously when you get in the final group and in contention, maybe leading, other things creep in there," he said. "You know your nerves play a little bit of a role in how you play. But when I made bogey today on the first hole, it didn't shake me up at all."
Stricker will show up like usual on Sunday. No red. No muscle shirt. But with a real chance this time, he hopes.
August 26, 2007
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Davis Love III, who played the final 57 holes of the Children's Miracle Network Classic without a bogey, finished at 25-under 263 in the season-ending event played at the Walt Disney World Golf Resort in Florida. It has been a long road back for Love, who severely sprained his ankle late last year. After tearing ligaments, he needed surgery, and he's spent much of this year rehabilitating the injury.
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