SILVIS, Ill. – Steve Stricker is making it look easy.
He insists that it’s not, even after posting stunningly low scores.
Stricker already has broken a couple of PGA Tour records at the John Deere Classic and has more in sight after opening a six-stroke lead with a 9-under-par 62 on Saturday.
That followed rounds of 60 and 66 at the TPC Deere Run course, which has stood no chance against the assault Stricker and his fellow players have launched.
“It’s never easy going out there,” Stricker said. “It wasn’t easy to start the round today. Coming to the course I felt like I’d never been in this position. I was nervous. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I just wanted to get out there and starting playing.”
And play he did.
Stricker’s masterful round left the tournament’s defending champion at 25-under 188, the best 54-hole score in PGA Tour history. He also has the best three-round score in relation to par. With a 65 Sunday, he’d break the 72-hole record of 254.
So dominant was Stricker that Jeff Maggert shot a 63 and lost ground. Paul Goydos, golf’s latest Mr. 59 after a magical round on Thursday, played well enough to keep pace in most tournaments, just not this one.
It would be hard for anyone to keep up with Stricker the way he’s playing.
The 43-year-old from Madison, Wis., hit accurate approaches to give himself short putts for birdies in most cases, and he deftly extricated himself the only two times he got in trouble.
So just what’s going on here?
“If I knew, I would bottle this,” Stricker said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Maggert, who started the day five shots behind Stricker, was at 19-under 194 and tied with Goydos, who trailed Stricker by just one stroke going into the round. Playing in the last group with Stricker, Goydos saw his deficit grow steadily as his partner drilled birdie putts on seven of the last 11 holes.
Former PGA Champion Shaun Micheel also shot a 63 – and found himself 10 strokes off the lead. Rocco Mediate made a hole-in-one and an eagle en route to a 64 but trailed by 14. Matt Jones wriggled into fourth place with a 66 that left him nine strokes back.
“Stricker’s nine in front of me, so you’d have to have something miraculous happen to him,” Jones said. “That’s not going to happen the way he’s playing, so my goal now is to play for second.”
Still, Stricker remained wary. He had a six-stroke lead on the final day of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera earlier this year and ended up winning by two.
“This course yields low scores, so you’ve got to be cautious that somebody can come from behind and post a low one and catch you,” he said. “So that’s going to be my mindset – play my own game and try to make as many birdies as I can.”
Mediate’s early score and those of Vaughn Taylor (64), Kenny Perry (65) and Gary Woodland (65) indicated that the course – the greens in particular – again was ripe for scoring.
“They would hold anything you threw in there,” the 49-year-old Perry said of the greens. “It’s definitely a birdiefest out there right now.”
It certainly was for Stricker.
He has 27 birdies for the tournament, giving him a shot at the Tour record of 32 for a 72-hole event, a mark shared by Mark Calcavecchia and Paul Gow.
Stricker broke the 54-hole record of 189 shared by Calcavecchia, John Cook and Tommy Armour III, with Calcavecchia and Cook both at 24 under. Armour also holds the 72-hole record, in the 2003 Texas Open at The Resort at LaCantera, a par-70 course.
“These three rounds are probably my best three rounds put together anywhere, for sure,” said Stricker, who’s No. 4 in the world rankings. “But that said, the last five years have been good. I don’t believe that it’s happened at times, but then again, I always felt like I had something in me that I could perform at a high level.”
For now, his thoughts are on maintaining his lead, which ballooned after he and Goydos matched each other shot-for-shot through nine – three birdies and five pars. A tense duel of accurate shot-making and crisp putting was going to come down to who faltered first.
It turned out to be Goydos, who missed an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 10. Stricker then birdied four of the next five holes, including a 31-footer on No. 12, to distance himself.
“I got steamrolled,” Goydos said.
Stricker drilled a 23-footer on 15 to go 24 under, but his approaches to the greens were so accurate that his seven other birdie putts all came from inside 10 feet. That included an easy 15-incher on No. 11 after he stuck an 8-iron from 170 yards.
“I’ve been putting the ball really well and I just try to get it on there in a good spot so I have a birdie putt,” Stricker said. “And I’ve given myself a lot of opportunities.”
Stricker didn’t get into any trouble until the last two holes.
He drove into the rough on the par-5 17th, then hit his second shot into a greenside bunker.
Hardly. He blasted out to 4 feet and birdied the hole.
On 18, Stricker drove into a stand of trees and punched out into the fairway, his ball landing in a divot, 100 yards from the pin. He had left the course with a sour feeling Friday after a missing a 2-foot par putt on 18 and was staring at another disappointing finish.
But his wedge stopped 7 inches short of the hole and he closed out his round with a tap-in for par.
“You never want to end with a bogey,” he said. “After I hit my poor drive, I played the hole smart. I just wanted to give myself 10 feet or under and get a putt at it. It was a good way to finish.”