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Stricker takes lead in Barclays title defense

Photo: Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Steve Stricker made five birdies and an eagle for a seven-under 64.

PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) — Steve Stricker certainly got U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger's attention in the first two rounds of The Barclays.

Trying to earn a spot as one of Azinger's four captain's picks after finishing ninth in the race for the eight automatic positions at Valhalla, Stricker shot a 7-under 64 on Friday to take a three-stroke lead in the FedEx Cup playoff opener.

"I've got two tournaments going on within one. That's basically what I feel like," Stricker said. "I'm trying like heck to keep it out of my mind, but it's nearly impossible. I feel a little more pressure."

A year after winning across the Hudson at Westchester Country Club, the Wisconsin player took advantage of perfect morning conditions at Ridgewood Country Club.

"This reminds me of home to tell you the truth," Stricker said. "This looks like a course that could be very easily in the Midwest somewhere. It reminds me of Medinah a lot. The grasses are the same. We putt on poa annua greens a lot where I'm from. It's bentgrass fairways, bluegrass rough and everything reminds me of home."

The 41-year-old Stricker, 21st in the FedEx Cup standings, had a 10-under 132 total on the tree-lined A.W. Tillinghast layout, the tournament site for the first time after 41 seasons at Westchester. He hasn't made a bogey since dropping strokes on the first two holes Thursday, playing his last 23 holes in 11 under.

"I think the course is in such good shape, that's why the scoring is good," Stricker said. "I think as we get further along, the scoring could get a little bit better just because guys will find a way to play it, understand it a little bit more and feel a little bit more comfortable with what they are doing out there."

Hunter Mahan followed his opening 62 with a 73 to drop into second place.

"I probably hit it better than I did yesterday, but nothing went in," Mahan said.

Kenny Perry, effectively the FedEx Cup leader with top-ranked Tiger Woods sidelined by a knee injury, shot a 67 to join Angel Cabrera (67) and Dudley Hart (69) at 6 under.

"I'm ecstatic," Perry said. "I'm in a good position."

Anthony Kim (67), Sergio Garcia (67), Kevin Streelman (70), Charley Hoffman (70) and Paul Casey (71) were 5 under.

"I definitely played a lot better," Kim said. "It's a lot more fun when you're not hitting out of the trees and chipping out sideways."

Phil Mickelson was eight strokes back at 2 under after a 70.

"A lot of birdies and a lot of bogeys," Mickelson said. "I need to go out (Saturday) and have a good day and shoot 6 or 7 under."

Padraig Harrington had rounds of 72 and 73 to miss the cut by two strokes.

"I'm tired," the British Open and PGA winner said. "I tried hard, but struggled to focus this afternoon. It really is a knockdown after the last couple of weeks."

Stricker eagled the par-5 third hole, hitting a 60-degree wedge shot from about 70 yards that spun back into the hole, and was 4 under after five holes. He hit a 5-iron to 20 feet on the par-4 11th to set up a birdie, and made a 6-footer on the par-5 13th to tie Mahan for the lead at 9 under. The four-time tour winner pulled ahead with a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-3 15th and closed with three pars.

The PGA Tour's comeback player of the year the past two seasons, Stricker hit nine of 14 fairways, 14 greens in regulation and needed only 25 putts on the small greens.

"They were perfect and they rolled great," Stricker said. "They were smooth. They still held fairly well, but you could tell that they are going to get firm."

Garcia has thrived on old-school courses, twice winning at Westchester and claiming titles at Colonial and Congressional.

"It's a wonderful golf course," Garcia said. "You've got to drive the ball well and shape it both ways and make sure that your short game is in shape, because it's quite difficult around the greens."

Hart birdied the 18th, fading a 3-iron around the trees lining the right side of the fairway and holing a tricky 6-footer from the top of a ridge.

"I had to hit every bit of a 3-iron in there," Hart said. "This is a great golf course. This is one of the best courses we've played all year for sure."

Divots: Canadian star Mike Weir is growing a playoff beard. "I was on vacation last week down at a lake and let it grow and got back and I thought, 'Hey, it's playoff time, maybe I'll just keep it,"' said Weir, 3 under after a 67. "It's a hockey thing. In hockey, guys grow the beards, so I thought I would give it a shot and see if it works." ... Eric Axley followed his opening 78 with a 65 to make the cut by a shot. ... Ernie Els missed the cut by a stroke with rounds of 71 and 73. ... The top 120 in FedEx Cup standings will qualify for the Deutsche Bank Championship next week in Norton, Mass. The field will be cut to 70 for the BMW Championship in St. Louis and to 30 for the Tour Championship in Atlanta.

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