HARRISON, N.Y. - It once got so low for Steve Stricker that he felt he had to fire his wife as caddie "to save the marriage." But there Stricker stood on the 18th green at Westchester Country Club Sunday, blubbering happy tears, dying to call that fired caddie he still sleeps with on the phone.
Once they connected, Stricker told her more about the biggest moment of his long and often painful golf career - a two-shot win in the first ever FedEx Cup playoff tournament over a leaderboard full of golf's major winners. With the pressure on at The Barclays, Stricker finished in dramatic fashion: He birdied the last three holes to yank the tournament away from K.J. Choi and seemingly every other big name in golf except the absent Tiger Woods.
Stricker, who had the reputation on the PGA Tour as the guy who couldn't finish, shot a final round 69 to finish at 16-under-par (268) for the tournament. He pocketed a $1.26 million winner's check (that isn't deferred like the FedEx Cup grand prize) for his first PGA Tour win in six years.
"I tell you what, I've been waiting for this day for a long time," Stricker said, the tears welling up once again.
Stricker grabbed the moment by getting bold just when the tournament seemed to be slipping away. When Choi dropped in a 50-foot birdie putt on par-4 15th to go up by one shot (a putt that sent a roar through Westchester so loud that it shook the green on the next hole and caused Rory Sabbatini to step away from a putt), Stricker told himself to do something.
"At that point, I just felt like I needed to get a little more aggressive with things," he said.
Stricker promptly hit a 4-iron to 19 feet and buried the putt on the par-3 16th to tie Choi, who was in the last group with him. Then, Stricker hit an even better approach on 17. His sandwedge landed within three feet of the cup to the cheer of a crowd that now sensed it was his day.
That birdie gave Stricker a one shot lead and when Choi sent his second shot on 18 into the bunker, Stricker had his version of nirvana in sight. And he wasn't the only one celebrating after his final-round 69.
Fellow PGA pro Jerry Kelly - who grew up with Stricker in Madison, Wisconsin - came out onto the 18th green in shorts and a T-shirt to share the moment.
"This should shut up the people in the past who said he hasn't worked hard enough, that he wasn't motivated enough," Kelly said. "That was never the problem. He worked, he really worked. I was right there with him that winter, I saw it first hand. He really wanted this.
"This is the culmination of so much."
Stricker's is one of golf's great comeback stories. After having come onto the Tour as a hot rookie in the mid 90s, Stricker lost his Tour card entirely in 2005, sending him back to Q-school at age 38.
It's also the winter that Stricker went back to Madison and pounded golf balls into the snow out of a three-sided mobile home. "It's got heat pumped in there and you're hitting them from inside out," Stricker said in explaining his makeshift practice setup.
Still, Stricker admitted he felt much more heat after Choi drained that 50-foot putt.
"I thought, 'Well, here he goes again,' " Stricker said.
Earlier in the year, Choi beat Stricker in the final round of the AT&T in large part because of a hole-out from a bunker on 17. Stricker couldn't only worry about Choi either. At one point late in the afternoon, 10 players stood within three shots of the lead and five of them were major championship winners.
Sabbatini birdied 17 and 18 to finish ahead of all those major winners at 13-under, but he never gave Stricker much to sweat about on the back nine. After ripping off five birdies on the front nine to move to 14-under, Sabbatini bogeyed three of the next five holes.
Ernie Els (68 Sunday), Geoff Ogilvy (69), Mark Calcavecchia (65) didn't have as many obvious regrets as Sabbatini in finishing tied for fourth at 12-under, one ahead of fellow major champions Phil Mickelson (67) and Rich Beem (72).
In the end, Mickelson left Westchester lamenting his decision to play no-caution golf in an attempt to make up a seven shot deficit. "I never knew what the leaders were going to do," said Mickelson, who teed off 50 minutes ahead of Stricker and Choi. "I never knew they were going to stay around the start at 14-under. Stricker could have easily shot three or four under and I could not have made a difference.
"With the leaders staying right around the same start number today, if I could have made more of a push, eliminated that double (bogey on No. 4) early, I might have made a better run," Mickelson said.
Stricker figures it might have just been his day, though. He already had plenty of disappointments this summer. Stricker took the lead in the final round of the U.S. Open, only to post a 40 on the back nine. He went into the final day of the British Open in the final group and shot 74. He battled nerves early here too, sending three drives into the rough.
"It was such a relief to tell you the truth," Stricker said of the win. "I've worked - I mean every player out here wants to do this, wants to win. That's what we're all out here to do. You don't get in position that many times - at least guys like me don't - and when you do, it's tough to pull it off."
One of Stricker's lowest moments with his caddie wife came on this very course. After a particularly bad tournament at Westchester years ago, Stricker angrily told his wife Nicki that she should "take a picture" because they'd never be back.
Now, Stricker has his picture-perfect moment against one of the best fields in golf this season. And someone was asking about that fired caddie again.
"You guys like to see me cry, don't you?" Stricker said, laughing through the tears.
August 27, 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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