LEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Steve Stricker never saw his ball spin back into the cup for an eagle, but the raucous reaction from an adoring gallery Saturday at Cog Hill told him all he needed to know.
The cheers followed him all day in the BMW Championship.
It seems as if that’s all Stricker has been hearing since these PGA Tour Playoffs began.
On a course that feels like home, Stricker had a birdie putt on every hole and converted the last one from 5 feet for a 7-under 64 that gave him a share of the lead with Aaron Baddeley, one shot clear of Tiger Woods.
Baddeley birdied his last two holes for a 65 that knocked Woods out of the final group. But the way Stricker has been going the last three weeks, maybe it was Woods who was relieved he didn’t have to face him Sunday.
“Any other part of the country, they don’t even know who I am,” said Stricker, who played college golf at Illinois, grew up across the border in Wisconsin and had to scrounge up 50 tickets for family and friends. “I don’t get this on a weekly basis, that’s for sure.”
Woods, a three-time winner at Cog Hill, made some noise of his own.
The BMW Championship came to life with sunshine and spectacular play, with Woods and Stricker matching birdies along the back nine until Stricker hit 6-iron to 5 feet for a birdie on the 18th hole that put him one shot ahead.
Woods missed only one fairway and two greens and was subdued after a 65 that he felt was the worst he could have scored. But he had no complaints about his position, one shot out of the lead.
“I felt like 6 under was the highest score I could have shot,” Woods said. “But I’m in a good spot going into tomorrow.”
Stricker and Woods played together the first two rounds because of their high standing in the playoffs, and it looked as though they would be paired on Sunday. Along came Baddeley, quietly lurking all afternoon, with a 30-foot birdie on the 17th and an approach into 5 feet on the final hole for a 65.
Stricker and Baddeley were at 15-under 198.
The third round of these PGA Tour Playoffs looks much like the first two events — terrific golf by the top players, setting the stage for what could be more great theater in the final round.
Stricker, who won the first playoff event at The Barclays for his first victory in 6 1/2 years, might be the hottest player in golf. Another victory would give him a commanding lead in the chase for the FedEx Cup, with Woods or the absent Phil Mickelson having to win the Tour Championship to catch him.
“I guess you just get in periods where it’s very easy to concentrate, and I’ve been concentration very well,” Stricker said. “There hasn’t been a lot of things that have bothered me, and when I have played a bad hole, I really have done well with just letting it go.”
Not too much bothered him Saturday, especially on the eighth hole, where Woods made birdie in the group ahead of him to take the outright lead for the first time all week.
“You’ve got roars, and then you’ve got Tiger roars, and then you’ve got the hometown crowd roar, and then you’ve got someone else’s roar,” Baddeley said, playing behind Stricker. “But you could tell Steve’s roars out there today. When he holed his second shot on No. 8, you just knew that was a Steve Stricker roar out there.”
Barring an amazing charge from behind, it appears to be a three-man race at the BMW Championship.
Woods will be playing with Justin Rose, who birdied his last two holes to salvage an otherwise ho-hum round of 69, leaving him five shots behind the leaders.
Jonathan Byrd, who was tied with Baddeley at the start of the third round, shot an even-par 71 and fell six shots behind.
“You make par out here you get run over,” Woods said.
Stricker usually had to settle for par. He hit all 18 greens in regulation and has not missed a green since the 13th hole of the second round. Despite making five birdies and his eagle, he missed five birdie putts from inside 12 feet.
“I had real good opportunities,” he said. “But at this point, you can’t be greedy. Nobody makes them all. And when you do, you have one of those ’60’ rounds.”
Woods felt like he was going to have one, also missing a number of good chances from short range. A three-time winner at Cog Hill, Woods spent most of the back nine atop the leaderboard, with impressive shots on the par 5s.
He wanted to go for the par-5 11th green with a 2-iron, hitting a draw that would bend left with the breeze. But he felt it shift to the right, so chose to hit a slice with his 3-wood that disappeared over the trees and settled onto the green.
The birdie on No. 15 was peculiar only until he reached the green.
Woods safely found the fairway with a 3-wood, then Camilo Villegas drive landed on Woods’ ball and knocked it back. Under the rules, he had to drop it in the vicinity where it had been, and his drop bounced back about a foot into the front of a divot.
Needing to carry the bunker at 232 yards, Woods played a 3-iron back in his stance to about 35 feet for a two-putt birdie.
He finished with three straight pars, losing the lead only after he finished his round.
Asked he was disappointed not to play with Woods in the final round, Stricker smiled and said, “Probably not.”
“It’s tough to compete against a guy like that, and all you can do is just try your best,” Stricker said. “I think what made me relax about the whole situation is I can’t worry about him. I know he’s going to do phenomenal things. I’ve just got to go out and do my things differently.”
They go about it different ways, but it sure sounded the same Saturday.