DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Steve Stricker liked the shape of his 6-iron on the par-3 eighth hole at Muirfield Village, a slight draw against a left-to-right wind with the ball headed toward the flag.
When it rolled into the cup for an ace, he raised his arms with a broad smile. The ace on his 17th hole of the second round Friday enabled him to break out of a five-way tie for the lead, and when he closed with a birdie, he had a 5-under 67 and a three-shot lead in the Memorial going into the third round.
There was no high-charged pump of the fist. The celebration was over quickly.
It was only his second career ace on the PGA Tour, although it was hard to tell from his reaction. Instead of tucking the ball safely away in his bag to become a keepsake, he teed it up on the next hole. And after knocking in a birdie putt, he signed his name on the golf ball and handed it to the official who was keeping score in his group.
Don’t get the idea Stricker is not the emotional sort. This is the guy who cried after his PGA Tour wins – an exception made for the Shark Shootout during the silly season – until he started winning with regularity.
But for a hole-in-one? If nothing else, Stricker has some perspective.
As special as it is to make an ace, it’s not worth getting really emotional until they start handing out trophies. Stricker at least is headed in the right direction.
How many aces in his lifetime? Stricker isn’t sure.
“I don’t keep track,” he said. “I don’t jot them down at home and log them all or anything.”
He vaguely recalls his first ace, when he was in college at Illinois. It was a practice round, and he might have been hitting multiple shots from the tee and one of them happen to go in.
“I don’t even know if that constitutes a hole-in-one,” he said.
He does remember his other hole-in-one on the PGA Tour, even if no one else does. Never mind that it came in the Phoenix Open, on the 16th hole that happens to be the most raucous hole in golf.
That was in 1997, which happened to be the same year Tiger Woods made an ace on the same hole before thousands of cup-throwing, jaw-dropping, berserk fans who turned that moment into one of the most celebrated moments of Woods this side of a major. Any highlight package of Woods is sure to include that ace in Phoenix.
“You didn’t see mine that year? No?” Stricker said.
He eventually pointed out that his hole-in-one came in the final round – Saturday attracts the largest crowds – and that he teed off that morning on the back nine, before the fans start filling the grandstands on the 16th.
“There wasn’t a lot of people there,” Stricker said. “I won the car, though, that year. He did his on Saturday. It (the car) was for Sunday’s round. It was an Oldsmobile Aurora.”
And where is the car now?
“I used it for a little while, and then traded it in for a minivan,” Stricker said.
Stricker said the eighth hole has given him fits over the year, which is just as well. So has this tournament. In 11 previous appearances at the tournament Jack Nicklaus created, Stricker never has finished in the top 10.
He is hoping to change that, and shots like his ace certainly help.
Stricker was at 9-under 135, three shots clear of Rory McIlroy (72), Ricky Barnes (70), Jonathan Byrd (67) and the resurgent Rod Pampling of Australia, who lost his PGA Tour card last year and had a bogey-free 66.
McIlroy already has made 13 birdies over two rounds, proof enough that he’s swinging well and making his share of putts. He also has five bogeys and a sloppy double bogey Friday on the 14th hole, when he pulled his tee shot into the tiny stream left of the fairway and nearly went into the water on his next shot.
“I felt as if I played good enough to shoot something in the 60s, but I just made too many mistakes out there,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy wasn’t alone in the good and bad of Muirfield Village.
Rickie Fowler, the runner-up at the Memorial last year, has only 12 pars in 36 holes. He was at 3-under 141, six shots behind but still very much in the hunt at the halfway points.
“The conditions are scoreable, but bogeys can creep up on you quickly,” Fowler said. “You can make some birdies, but if there’s a tough pin and you don’t hit the right shot, you’ll make bogeys. It’s a fine line.”
Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III was a great illustration of that. He had six birdies and an eagle and shot 73. Love also hit two into the water on the par-5 11th to make a triple bogey, then took a double bogey on the 17th along with four other bogeys.
Luke Donald, in his debut as the No. 1 player in the world, had another strong rally by finishing with back-to-back birdies for a 69 that left him at 5-under 139, still very much in the hunt. Donald has not finished out of the top 10 in nine straight tournaments.
“Some careless mistakes out there,” Donald said.
With so many wild scorecards, leave it to Phil Mickelson to have a conservative one. That’s not necessarily a good thing this week. Mickelson has made only five birdies against three bogeys through 36 holes, leaving seven shots behind.
“I need something good tomorrow,” Mickelson said. “I had a chance to shoot something in the 60s and move up the leaderboard and didn’t capitalize on a lot of opportunities.”