DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Steve Stricker holed out from the fairway for one of his two eagles Saturday, wound up with a 3-under 69 on a steamy afternoon at Muirfield Village and finished with a three-shot lead in the Memorial.
He still had to convince himself it was a good day.
Right when it looked as though Stricker might leave everyone in his wake, he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole that threw his round into reverse. He made bogey on the par-5 15th. He missed a 4-foot par putt on the 16th, and had a 7-foot birdie on the next hole catch the lip. And when he arrived to his ball in the middle of the 18th fairway, it was right in the middle of a sand-filled divot.
Stricker managed to save par on the last hole, and perspective soon followed.
“All of a sudden, things seemed pretty hard, when at the start of the day, things were really going my way,” he said. “But I understand that, and I understand that’s the nature of this game. So you add them up at the end, and it was a 69. And it was a good score.”
The score that matters is 12-under 204, which was three shots clear of Jonathan Byrd.
Byrd, who won the season-opener at Kapalua after playing in the final group with Stricker, hit his approach into 2 feet on the final hole for a birdie at a 69. Perhaps most significant to Byrd was that he didn’t drop a lot of shots down the stretch as so many others did. Byrd’s only blunder came on the par-5 11th, where he made his only bogey in his last 43 holes.
“I’m doing everything pretty well,” Byrd said.
Matt Kuchar was the only player who seemed capable of keeping up with Stricker in the early going, but he dropped two shots in his last four holes and had to settle for a 68. That put him in a tie for third with Brandt Jobe (69), four shots behind.
Rory McIlroy is still in the hunt.
Despite a sloppy double bogey on the par-3 fourth, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland rolled in a long eagle putt on the 15th and wound up with a 71. McIlroy was 10 shots behind with six holes to play, and now is within five shots of the lead going to Sunday.
“Even though I didn’t play my best stuff today, I’m still in a decent position going into tomorrow,” McIlroy said. “And that’s all you can ask for.”
He was at 7-under 209, along with former PGA champion Shaun Micheel (67) and Mark Wilson, who shot 66 despite a bogey on the final hole and will be trying to win for the third time this year.
Luke Donald, in his debut as No. 1 in the world, might only have a shot at his 10th consecutive top-10 finish in worldwide golf. Donald tried to stay in the picture until making a few bogeys down the stretch, as so many others did. He shot a 73 and was eight shots behind in a tie for 17th.
Four-time major champion Phil Mickelson finished with two birdies for a 72 and was 10 shots behind.
Stricker holed out for eagle from 113 yards on the second hole, made another eagle with a 3-iron into 6 feet on the par-5 fifth and looked as though he might run away from the field when he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth.
It all changed with the short putt he missed on the 14th.
“Just missing that putt, and then sitting down at 15 tee, not getting going after that miss,” he said. “The whole back nine seemed to kind of drag on a little bit. We waited a lot, it seemed like. I started missing some putts. Things seemed a little bit more difficult. My lies all of a sudden turned out to be a little more difficult.”
He led by six shots until he finally got the 15th tee and pulled his tee shot into the left rough, then hit the next one into mangled grass in a hazard that forced him to chip out sideways. That began the slow slide back to the field, but not all the way back.
Stricker still leads by three shots as he goes for a 10th career victory, and a chance to go to No. 4 in the world and be the highest-ranked American for the first time in his career.
An amazing start gave Stricker strokes to burn toward the end of his round.
After an 8-footer to save par from a bunker on the opening hole, Stricker had 113 yards on No. 2. He reached into his pocket for a tee to clean out a chunk of dirt in his 53-degree wedge, set up over the ball and hit a perfect shot that spun into the cup for an eagle. Three holes later, he hit 3-iron over the water with just enough draw to catch the ridge and settled 6 feet away for another eagle.
Going back to the second round, it was his third eagle in seven holes. And he became only the 13th player on the PGA Tour since 1983 to make an eagle on a par 3, par 4 and par 5 in the same tournament.
He had it going so well that his lone bogey on the front nine came on a shot that was about a yard away from being an easy birdie, his wedge just hopping into a buried lie beyond the green instead of rolling down the ridge. But he answered with an 8-foot birdie on the seventh, and a 25-foot birdie on the eighth to go out in 31.
Staked to a five-shot lead on the back nine, however, Stricker began looking tentative, and the short birdie miss on the 14th seemed to drain him of energy, not to mention momentum.
Kuchar made six birdies on the front nine and went out in 31 to try to stay in range of Stricker. But he also took bogey on the 15th, then went long on the 18th and missed a 6-foot par putt to fall back.
“A little disheartening,” Kuchar said. “Stricker was matching me shot-for-shot out there. I felt like I really had it going, and a little disappointing to drop a couple coming in. But it’s a tough golf course.”