KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) – Steve Stricker has a bad habit of losing big leads. He managed to slip back into his old habit of winning.
Despite losing most of his five-shot lead in only six holes, Stricker steadied himself in time to kick off the new PGA Tour season with a three-shot victory in the Tournament of Champions on Monday.
Right when it looked as though Stricker was coming unglued, he made back-to-back birdies at the turn. That restored his lead to three shots, and no one got closer than two shots the rest of the way.
Stricker birdied his last hole for a 4-under 69 for his 12th career win, which moved him to No. 5 in the world ranking.
Sweeter than the winner's lei draped around his neck on the 18th green at Kapalua were his two children, 13-year-old Bobbi Maria and 5-year-old Isabella, there to greet him with a hug.
Stricker held back tears – they usually flow freely after a win – perhaps a sign that he's getting used to this business of winning. It was his ninth PGA Tour win since he turned 40, and his eighth title in his last 50 tournaments.
As usual, he didn't make it easy on himself.
Stricker had a five-shot lead going into the Monday finish on Maui, and it was just about gone when he muffed a flop shot and took bogey on the sixth hole.
Martin Laird, Webb Simpson and Jonathan Byrd each got within one shot of Stricker on the front nine, but not for long. Stricker rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth, pitched to tap-in range at the par-5 ninth and was on his way.
Laird closed with a 67, and his birdie on the last hole put him alone in second place. Byrd kept most of the pressure on Stricker along the back nine of the Plantation Course, but he bogeyed the 17th. He had a 68 and tied for third with Simpson, who had a 68.
Stricker could not have started the new season better – all four rounds in the 60s, and already able to book his room at Kapalua for next year.
“It was tough,'' said Stricker, who finished at 23-under 269. “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.''
The PGA Tour got off to a good start, too. There was so much focus at the start of the week on who didn't show up at Kapalua for this winners-only event – three major champions, all of whom live overseas, along with three players who are recovering from injury.
Stricker was the highest-ranked American in the field, and played the best golf.
It just didn't always look that way.
This was the fourth time in the last two years that Stricker led a big lead turn into some nervous moments on the last day.
– At the John Deere Classic in July, he watched a five-shot lead with nine holes to play turn into a two-shot deficit with two holes to play before he rallied to beat Kyle Stanley with an exquisite birdie on the last hole.
– At the Memorial in June, he had a four-shot lead at the turn and was still three shots clear with five to play. He held on to win by one.
– At Riviera in 2010, his six-shot lead going into the final round was down to two shots after only six holes. Stricker steadied himself and went on to win by two.
Monday on Maui was not much different.
Byrd made three straight putts early in the round, two of them for birdie, and Simpson in the group ahead made an eagle at No. 5. Stricker settle for pars, which was not a problem as long as he took care of the birdie holes.
But he didn't. Stricker three-putted for par from just over 30 feet on the fifth, then hit a fluffy pitch that came up short of the sixth green and let to bogey as Byrd made another birdie for a two-shot swing.
Stricker stood at the back of the green while Byrd was making his putt, shaking his head, clearly flustered. It only took six holes for his five-shot lead to shrink to a single stroke, with 12 holes ahead of him. His next birdie putt didn't even come close.
But on the hole that has given him fits this week, Stricker hit a pure shot into 25 feet on the par-3 eighth and made it for birdie, then birdied the ninth to regain control.
Byrd made the last big run at him by hitting a wedge to 4 feet on the 16th. Stricker followed him with a wedge into 2 feet for matching birdies that kept his lead at two shots with two holes to play.