Minutes after Steve Stricker rolled in a short birdie putt for his first PGA Tour win in almost two years, Stricker's caddie, Jimmy Johnson, walked into the darkened restaurant at Colonial Country Club in search of a cold one. It had been almost a year since Johnson picked up Stricker's bag, a period marked by the high of the Ryder Cup and the low of seeing a bushel of tournaments slip through their fingers.
"He needed it," Johnson said of Stricker's fifth Tour victory, during which he victimized winless Tim Clark and Steve Marino on the second playoff hole of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. "It's like a monkey off his back."
If Stricker was trying to shed a monkey, Clark was carrying the whole zoo. The diminutive South African entered Colonial with zero wins in 183 PGA Tour starts and had a two-shot lead with five holes to play at a revamped but still quaint Colonial.
Clark bogeyed the 14th hole and, with a chance to win on the 18th, left his 12-foot par putt short. Things unraveled from there. He yanked a seven-footer for birdie and the win on the first playoff hole, the 18th, and haplessly watched his approach shot hit the flagstick and roll 25 feet away on the second playoff hole, the 17th.
"I can't take anything positive from today," Clark, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement. "I have a lot of work to do when it comes to closing out golf tournaments."
Stricker knows the feeling. He entered the week with five top 10s this season good paydays all of them but no wins. In January at the Bob Hope Classic, seemingly in control of the tournament, he made a triple bogey and a quadruple in the span of four holes. When he missed a short par putt on 16 at Colonial, Stricker appeared to be finished again. Instead, he holed a pitch shot for birdie on 17 and, upon returning to the hole during the playoff, stuck an eight-iron to four feet.
"I've been maintaining a positive attitude," said Stricker, whose winning total was a 17-under 263. "At first [it] stung, not winning, but I realize I did a lot of good things to get myself [in contention]. You've just got to keep moving forward."
Said Johnson, "We knew we were doing the right things."
Stricker, a friendly Wisconsinite who lost his Tour card in 2004, now enters the heart of the season as an intriguing major-championship contender. (He finished 16th at the U.S. Open at Bethpage in 2002.) On Sunday, as he recalled receiving a sponsor's exemption into Colonial in 2005, his voice cracked and his eyes watered.
"I haven't forgotten it," said Stricker, who won't need an exemption at Colonial ever again. His name will be added to the Wall of Champions by the 1st tee, engraved in marble, steps from a statue of Ben Hogan.