NORTON, Mass. – Steve Stricker can build a strong case for the Deutsche Bank Championship as the biggest victory of his career.
It was his first win with Tiger Woods in the tournament. His third victory of the season moved him up to a career-high No. 2 in the world ranking. And he replaced Woods atop the FedEx Cup standings.
What satisfied Stricker the most, however, was how he won.
In a wild Labor Day finish on the TPC Boston, where a half-dozen players came to the par-5 18th hole with hopes of winning, Stricker finished with back-to-back birdies for a 4-under 67 and a one-shot victory Monday.
“Knowing I had to make a couple of birdies and actually doing it means a lot,” he said.
The names kept changing atop the leaderboard throughout the back nine, and Stricker only found comfort from seeing his name in the mix. Jason Dufner was the first player to break out of the tie with a two-putt birdie on the 18th. Standing in the 17th fairway, Stricker heard another cheer through the trees and figured it was Scott Verplank making birdie – his fourth in a row – to tie for the lead.
That’s when Stricker took over.
He knocked in a 15-foot birdie on the 17th, helped by getting a good read on the tricky putt from Retief Goosen. Then, he split the middle of the 18th fairway and hit a hybrid just over the green. He hit a delicate chip to tap-in range for the win.
“It was a tough day. There was a lot of guys in the mix,” Stricker said. “And I just found a way to get it done.”
Stricker finished at 17-under 267 and earned $1.35 million. He also built a 909-point lead over Woods in the FedEx Cup with two tournaments remaining. Because the points are reset after next week in Chicago, Stricker is assured of being no worse than the No. 2 seed in the Tour Championship with a chance to win the $10 million prize.
“It’s been a blast, and I want to keep riding it out,” Stricker said, his voice cracking. His only failure Monday was winning a PGA Tour event and trying to get through an interview without crying. This makes him 0 for 7.
Dufner, who had to go through two stages of Q-School last year, two-putted from 40 feet for birdie at a 65 to become the first player to post at 16-under 268. Verplank birdied his last four holes, and his eagle putt from the fringe grazed the edge of the cup. He wound up with a 67 and thought he might be headed for a playoff.
About the only player not in the mix was Woods, although he set the tone for the wild finish by tying a tournament record with a 30 on the front nine and getting within one shot of the leaders – even though they were still on the range – until settling for a 63.
His early departure didn’t make it easier on anyone, not with five major champions among the top 10.
“I knew that Strick would be tough to catch today,” Verplank said. “He’s not Tiger, but you know what? He may be the second-best player, at least on this tour. The guy is really playing good. So I knew he was going to be tough to catch. And it turns out he was.”
Padraig Harrington recovered from two poor drives that cost him three penalty strokes and had a chance to join Dufner and Verplank until he narrowly missed a 10-foot eagle putt. He shot 68 and tied for fourth with Masters champion Angel Cabrera, who missed the 18th fairway and made par for a 65; and Dustin Johnson, who failed to get up-and-down from behind the 18th green and shot 66.
It was the fourth time in five weeks that Harrington, winless since his PGA Championship last year, had a chance in the final round. He had a one-shot lead going to the back nine until hooking his tee shot into a hazard on the 10th, and hooking another tee shot on the 12th for a lost ball.
“I’m disappointed with today because it was in my control,” said Harrington. “I was leading the tournament, and going into the back nine it was mine to lose. And I lost it. I’ll feel this one a lot more than some of the others.”
Woods also was part of the fun, although briefly.
“Certainly, from where I was at, I couldn’t win the tournament, even if I shot 60 or something like that,” Woods said.
Really, the only suspense was whether he could go after a 59, and that ended with a par on the 16th. Woods bogeyed the next hole and had to settle for his best score of the year. He tied for 11th, five shots behind.
When he left, the tournament began.
With so much noise from so many birdies, Stricker was plodding along with pars on the back nine, wanting only to hit greens and give himself birdie chances. He waited until the end to deliver.
It was quite a change from last week, when Stricker missed a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole at The Barclays to force a playoff. That loss stung, but not for long.
Asked if it was gratifying to bounce back one week later and have another putt on the 18th hole, Stricker laughed.
“This one was more my length, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I liked this 1-footer.”
Stricker also won the opening playoff event in 2007, and he now has had 28 of 40 rounds in the 60s during this postseason bonanza. Told that he had replaced Woods atop the FedEx Cup standings, Stricker put it all in perspective.
“We’re taking up space in his world,” he said. “But I’m thrilled to death to be playing how I’m playing.”