Stricker leads Choi by 1 at Barclays

Stricker leads Choi by 1 at Barclays

Steve Stricker made three birdies on the back nine to shoot a 65.
Ed Betz/AP

HARRISON, N.Y. (AP) — Steve Stricker kept pouring in birdies at The Barclays until he had the lead to himself, and it wasn’t long before an electronic scoreboard projected Stricker atop the PGA Tour Playoffs.

Right now, Stricker isn’t the least bit worried about the FedEx Cup or its $10 million prize.

All he wants is a trophy.

In a season of blown opportunities, Stricker gave himself the best chance yet Saturday with a 6-under 65 that allowed him to zoom past K.J. Choi and take a one-shot lead into the final round at soft, vulnerable Westchester Country Club.

Stricker has either been tied or within one shot of the lead in the last round of four tournaments this year — two of them majors — but still is searching for his first victory since 2001.

“One of these times, it’s going to come out in my favor,” said Stricker, whose 14-under 199 tied the 54-hole tournament record.

This time, at least he has the lead.

It was the first time Stricker has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead in nine years, and not since the 1996 Western Open has he had the outright lead going into the last round.

That won’t make winning any easier.

Choi lost control of his fade shot off the tee along the back nine, but a birdie-birdie finish enabled him to salvage a 70, leaving him only one shot behind. Hunter Mahan tied a tournament scoring record for the second time in five weeks, this one a 9-under 62 that took him from the middle of the pack to only two shots behind.

And then there was Rich Beem, perhaps the most desperate contender.

Needing a top-10 finish to avoid elimination from these four-week playoffs, Beem overcame a rocky start with an eagle on the ninth hole that sent him to a 69. He also was two behind at 201, his best position going into Sunday since the Nissan Open in February.

“It’s going to be fun for me,” Beem said.

But it all starts with Stricker, who is no stranger to the Sunday pressure.

Having lost his PGA Tour card a few years ago, Stricker had to pound balls in the Wisconsin snow to get his game back. He was PGA Tour comeback player of the year in 2006, he made the Presidents Cup team for the first time in 11 years, and he has done just about everything but win.

“I haven’t been beating myself up about not winning any of those events, but obviously, I would like to win,” Stricker said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve won, and I’m just going to try to bring as many positive thoughts to the table tomorrow as I can.”

For now, he was thrilled to simply be in this position.

Only four players were within six shots of Choi going into a steamy afternoon at Westchester. But the South Korean plodded along with pars as Mahan and others were attacking soft greens.

That turned a potential runaway into a tournament with compelling possibilities. Ten players were separated by five shots going into the final round, a group that Ernie Els joined with an eagle on the last hole for a 68 that left him five back.

Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy had a 69 and was in the group at 203 that included Woody Austin (66) and Rory Sabbatini, who was among four players who had a share of the lead Saturday until he started missing fairways and making bogeys.

Phil Mickelson looked like he might join the chase with four birdies at the turn that pulled him within three shots of the lead. But that was as close as he got, and he had to settle for a 69 that left him seven shots back.

The most impressive day belonged to Mahan, who also shot 62 to tie the Canadian Open record last month. That was in the first round, and Mahan was up-and-down the rest of the week and tied for fifth.

“I feel like it’s going to be a little different tomorrow because I have a chance to win the tournament,” Mahan said.

So does Stricker — again.

He was tied for the lead at the Wachovia Championship until a double bogey on the 16th hole, allowing Tiger Woods to breathe easier. He was among the leaders at the AT&T National and wound up second behind Choi.

But the most memorable moments were at the majors. Stricker was tied for the lead at Oakmont as he made the turn in the final round, only to double bogey two straight holes and shoot 40 on the back nine. And he played in the final group at Carnoustie, one shot behind early in the last round, before one of golf’s best putters couldn’t make anything inside 6 feet.

“You still learn a lot,” Stricker said. “You learn how to handle rejection a little bit when you don’t win. It’s been a long time.”

Beem hasn’t won since the ’02 PGA Championship, and that five-year exemption runs out this year. He looked like he might fold when he was four shots behind after eight holes, but his eagle putt on the ninth changed everything. His only regret was not getting two wedge shots closer than 30 feet on the final holes.

“But I can’t complain about anything,” Beem said. “I played some pretty good golf today.”

That made what Mahan did simply spectacular.

He turned around his fortunes at Westchester, much like he turned around his season. Mahan has not finished out of the top 25 all summer, and he thrust himself into contention at The Barclays with nine birdies, none longer than 12 feet.

“I just tried to keep playing good and give myself a ton of opportunities, and made some,” Mahan said.

A victory by any of top seven players on the leaderboard would be enough for them to take over the No. 1 position in the playoffs.

For now, Stricker’s focus is on a trophy.

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