KAPALUA, Hawaii — Steve Stricker had a silver trophy in his hands and a white-and-purple lei around his neck, a photo opportunity at Kapalua that didn’t seem likely four months ago when he could barely hold onto a golf club.
He withdrew from the BMW Championship outside Chicago because of weakness in his left arm. It was a nervous time, even when it was diagnosed as a neck injury. The first doctor he saw recommended surgery, and Stricker nearly went along with it.
Stricker decided against surgery, opting for therapy, rest, a series of massages and two cortisone shots.
It looks like it was the right choice.
Stricker opened the PGA Tour season with a final round Monday on Maui filled with more tension that he needed, even if he is used to it by now. Staked to a five-shot advantage at the Tournament of Championship, his lead was down to a single shot after just six holes.
As he does so many times, though, Stricker’s short game bailed him out. He birdied back-to-back holes at the turn to regain control, answered Jonathan Byrd with a wedge into 2 feet for another birdie on the 16th, and wound up with a 4-under 69 and a three-shot win for an ideal start to the year.
“It was tough,” said Stricker, who now has won eight times in his last 50 tournaments. “I never let up today. It’s always tough trying to win, and it’s even more tough when you have a lead like I did. I’m very proud of what I did today.
“And it’s always cool to get a hug from your family walking off at the end.”
That was the best part of the day, seeing 13-year-old Bobbi Maria and 5-year-old Isabella greet him on the 18th green. It was the second time he has won when both his daughters were at the golf course. That never gets old.
Stricker finished at 23-under 269, three shots clear of Martin Laird (67).
The final round came down to those two, along with Byrd and Webb Simpson, who each closed with a 68. All three of the challengers got to within one shot of Stricker, but not for long.
He has made a habit of losing big leads in the final round, and of holding on for the win. Stricker is not sure what to make of these dynamics, although he’s glad the outcome has been the same.
Last summer at the John Deere Classic, he lost a five-shot lead on the back nine and had to birdie the final hole for a two-shot swing to beat Kyle Stanley. A month earlier, he had a four-shot lead at the Memorial and hung on to win by one shot.
At Riviera two years ago, his six-shot lead was reduced to two shots after only six holes, before he steadied himself to win by two.
So this was nothing new.
“I’ve been there before. It’s not a great feeling, either,” Stricker said. “It’s just the nature of our game. I realize that, and I’ve gone through it before. It always seems close, and you always have to perform to get it done.”
The way his left arm felt four months ago outside Chicago had him questioning whether he could.
Stricker turns 45 next month, and he knows his window is closing even if fully healthy. One doctor told him by having surgery he could be back in time for the Presidents Cup the week before Thanksgiving in Australia. The more advice he sought, the more Stricker realized he would be better off trying to treat it with therapy.
He had a cortisone shot before the Tour Championship. He had another one the week before Christmas, along with other therapy and a series of massages. The idea is to manage this injury, and he feels a lot better about that after his 12th career win.
Stricker felt stronger than he did last year, and that much was evident.
He played the final round with Byrd, with whom he also was paired during the tournament last year. There were times when Byrd was hitting his 3-wood farther than Stricker hit his driver. This year, Stricker was hitting it past Byrd at times.
As for the chipping and putting? They remain Stricker’s biggest weapons.
“I don’t want to have surgery,” Stricker said. “I don’t think at this point I need it. I’m just going to go ahead and try to do this maintenance that I’ve been doing the last couple of months and see if that’ll remedy the problem. And it’s been better, and my strength is better. I’ve got a couple cortisone shots I think that have helped quite a bit.
“But from what my physical therapist says, it’s just something that I need be on top of it all the time. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”
If nothing else, he appears to be on top of his game, especially this early in the year.
Stricker hit the ball beautifully all week. The difference was the size of the hole: It started to look smaller.
Laird ran off three birdies on the front nine. Simpson made an eagle on the par-5 fifth. Byrd make three straight putts, one of them for par, as they crept closer to Stricker.
He was making a mess of a few holes, and a mess of the final round.
Stricker three-putted the fifth hole for par, then played a poor flop shot on the sixth that came up short and led to another bogey. Just like that, his lead was down to one shot.
“You realize you still have a chance,” Laird said.
Just not for long.
Stricker was angry with himself as he stood on the back of the sixth green as Byrd made a short birdie. He stared at the ground, shaking his head. Perspective soon followed.
“I was kicking myself on the back of that green,” Stricker said. “I had just made two dumb plays. I was kind of beating myself up a little bit, not feeling too good about what had just happened. But then walking down 7, I said, ‘We’re still all right.’ If I would have told myself early in the week, I have a lead going down the seventh hole in the last round, I would take it.
“So I tried … to make myself feel good.”
Birdies helped him feel even better, starting with the 5-iron to 25 feet that he poured in the cup on the par-3 eighth. Another birdie put his lead back at three shots, and no one got closer than two shots the rest of the way.