Notes: Can Stricker secure a major title?

Steve Stricker waves as he walks across the second green during the third round of the Masters.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Steve Stricker’s bonus rounds at the Masters could have a big payoff.

Playing the weekend at Augusta National for the first time since 2001, Stricker found himself on the leaderboard after a bogey-free 68. At 7-under, he is alone in fifth place, four strokes behind Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry.

“Usually I’m not here on Saturday. It’s a great place now, isn’t it?” Stricker said, laughing. “That’s maybe why I felt a little more comfortable today, because this was a bonus because I haven’t made too many cuts here. I was really relaxed.”

Stricker tied for 10th at the 2001 Masters. But he missed the cut the next year as he descended into a four-year slump that almost ended his career. He plummeted to 189th on the money list in 2003 after making only eight cuts, and lost his card the next year.

He revived his career in 2006 with a run so impressive it earned him PGA Tour comeback player of the year — two years in a row. He wound up 34th on the money list, and had as many top-10 finishes (seven) as the previous five years combined. He was in contention at a major, too, leading the U.S. Open at Winged Foot after 36 holes.

He followed that up with an even better year in 2007, winning his first title in more than six years, finishing as the runner-up in the FedEx Cup and rising to No. 4 on the money list.

But when he came to the Masters the past two years, it was like 2003 all over again. He missed the cut both years, failing to even break par.

“I’ve wanted to play so well here every time that I’ve come that I just get in my way, I think,” Stricker said. “This year, I said (forget) it, just have fun with it and try not to put so much pressure on myself.”

Instead of bringing his whole family, only Stricker’s wife, Nicki, and their oldest daughter, Bobbi, are here with him.

His 68 tied for the low round of the day, and he and Justin Rose were the only players without a bogey. Now he’s in position to make a run at the leaders Sunday.

“I’m going to have a chance,” Stricker said. “I’ve got a nothing-to-lose type position, and maybe I can go out there and get a little more aggressive and try and make some birdies and put some pressure on the leaders.”

• • •

CAMPBELL’S MISTAKE: Chad Campbell was chugging along with a bogey-free round, looking as though he’d be playing in the final group Sunday.

Then he pulled the wrong club out of his bag.

Tied with Kenny Perry for the Masters lead, Campbell made a major mistake at the par-3 16th hole when he flew his tee shot into a bunker right of the flag. With the pin on an upper shelf, he couldn’t have been in a worse spot — except the water, perhaps. Not surprisingly, he wound up with a double bogey.

“I hit a really great shot,” Campbell insisted. “I just had the wrong club. That’s one mistake you can’t make on that hole.”

Hitting 173 yards into what he thought was a breeze, Campbell went with a 6-iron. But he said the wind appeared to die down just as he struck his ball.

“Obviously, I should have hit the 7-iron,” he said. “But I thought I would have to hit it really good just to get it up on that shelf.”

Campbell tried to be a little too precise with his shot out of the bunker, and failed to get out. Another swing worked better, leaving him about 6 feet below the cup. But he missed the bogey putt and took a 5.

Now, he’ll be in the next-to-last group on Sunday, paired with Jim Furyk and trying to overcome a two-shot deficit.

“I’d a lot rather be in the final group,” Campbell said, “because that means I would be a couple of shots better. I wouldn’t have to make up as many shots. But I still have a great opportunity to win this golf tournament. Hopefully, I can come out and do it.”

Campbell began the Masters with five straight birdies — the best start in tournament history — and played his first 28 holes at 11 under. He was on top after the first day and shared the 36-hole lead with Perry.

But Campbell is 2 over since his fast start, and he’ll have to recapture his earlier form if he hopes to win his first major title.

“I feel like I played really well today,” Campbell said after Saturday’s round. “I just missed a lot of opportunities for birdie. Hopefully, I can convert those tomorrow.”

• • •

UNHAPPY IAN: Ian Poulter shot his lowest round at Augusta National, and he still wasn’t happy.

The Englishman’s 4-under 68 Saturday tied for the low round, and put him in a tie for 10th at 4-under 212. That leaves him seven strokes behind Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry, and Poulter said he should be a lot closer.

“If you have offered it to me 10 minutes before teeing off, I would have taken it,” Poulter said. But after a scratchy start on the first two holes, “I got my tempo back and just hit it flawless. The only mistake I made was on 9. I had a 30-foot birdie putt and managed to convert that into a bogey, which is really annoying.

“I had a few extra chances on the back nine, which really I should have taken.”

Poulter’s best round in his previous four trips to Augusta National was a 69, shot last year on Friday. His best finish was a tie for 13th in 2007.

• • •

WEEKDAY RATINGS: Along with an increase in birdies, eagles and low scores the first two days at the Masters, there were a lot more viewers on television. ESPN said Saturday its ratings for the first two rounds were the highest in eight years.

The two-day household average rating was 2.8, the highest since it was a 2.9 in 2001 on USA Network, when Tiger Woods was going for his fourth consecutive major. The rating was up 8 percent from last year, the first year ESPN began televising the early rounds.

Total viewers were 3,435,077, up 16 percent from last year.

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