LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a tournament everyone expected him to win, Steve Stricker was trying not to lose.
Instead of firing at flags and trying to make birdies, which allowed him to build a six-shot lead at Riviera, he suddenly found himself playing it safe and trying not to make bogeys. Instead of having a chance to break the 25-year-old tournament scoring record, he feared matching a PGA Tour record for blowing the biggest lead. (Read what our experts have to say about Stricker’s win, Mickelson’s mediocre showing and more in PGA Tour Confidential, our weekly roundtable.)
The Northern Trust Open ultimately ended Sunday the way everyone thought it would – Stricker in tears after another victory.
“I just knew it was going to be hard,” Stricker said after closing with a 1-under 70 for a two-shot victory over Luke Donald. “You’re playing a different game than what you normally play. You played scared – at least I did there for a while.”
Back-to-back birdies at the turn settled him down. Another clutch putt for par on the 15th hole essentially clinched it for him.
Stricker won for the fourth time in his last 15 starts, moving up to No. 2 in the world for the second time in his career. It was his eighth career victory, and the eighth time he couldn’t make it through his TV interview without wiping tears from his eyes.
This time, all it took was a reminder of where he was four years ago, when he lost his PGA Tour card.
The final round felt as though it lasted just as long.
His lead was cut in half after four holes after Stricker missed a short par putt. It was down to two shots when Donald made a 10-foot birdie on the fifth hole. It might have vanished entirely had Donald not missed birdie putts about the same length on the next two holes.
“If I got really hot with the putter, I could have maybe caught Steve,” said Donald, who closed with a 66. “He played nicely coming down the stretch, and I think he was a deserved winner. But at least I gave him a little run for his money.”
Stricker finished at 16-under 268 and earned $1.152 million to go over $25 million for his career.
Dustin Johnson, who shot a 74 on Saturday to fall out of the lead, made one last run and got within three shots. He shot a 66 and tied for third with J.B. Holmes, who closed with a 67.
Stricker built his lead back to four shots on the back nine when he started playing cautiously and saw it start slipping away. Then came the 15th, when he missed his 4-iron to the left and chipped poorly to 10 feet, only to make his biggest putt of the round.
“My father-in-law always says there’s a defining moment when you’re going to win a golf tournament,” Stricker said. “And I think that was it right there. It allowed me to keep a three-shot lead going into the last three holes.”
Phil Mickelson, trying to become the first player to win three straight years at Riviera, had a 73 and finished 14 shots behind.
Even as he left the course Saturday night leading by five shots, Stricker said he expected a long, tough day.
The long day came from having to return in the morning darkness to finish off his third round. With temperatures in the 40s before the sun climbed over Sunset Boulevard, he rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the 15th, hit 7-iron to 4 feet for birdie on the 16th and led by seven shots until a bogey on the 18th, his first in 32 holes. Stricker completed a 66 for a six-shot lead.
The tough part was finishing it off.
Stricker knew he was in for a battle when he had 5-iron to clear the bunker at the par-5 opening hole. Instead, he took 4-iron to play it safe, went just over the green and failed to make birdie.
Stricker didn’t have another birdie putt inside 20 feet until the eighth hole, but he converted them. Donald, meanwhile, had birdie chances inside 20 feet over the opening eight holes, but only made three of them.
Stricker also had a big lead at the Western Open in 1996, when he went on to win by eight shots.
“It was so long ago I couldn’t really remember how I handled it,” Stricker said. “It’s just difficult playing with that sort of lead. A lot of guys were making birdies and applying pressure. I’m just happier than heck to be here and be the champion.”
This is the second time Stricker has gone to No. 2 in the world – he also got there in September after winning in Boston – although he likely still would have to win at three more times to catch Tiger Woods, who is out indefinitely as he tries to save his marriage.
Could he imagine himself at No. 1.
“I don’t allow that,” Stricker said. “We all know who the best player in the world is, and I’ll just continue to do what I do, and that’s practice hard and work at it and try to improve.”
DIVOTS: The only time Stricker has not cried after a victory was last year at the Shark Shootout, during the silly season. … Anthony Kim had two double bogeys on the front nine and closed with a 78 in his first PGA Tour event of the year. … Ben Curtis missed birdie putts inside 15 feet on his last two holes. To have made either one of them likely would have qualified him for the Match Play Championship in two weeks. … Paul Goydos had a 65 to match the low score of the final round. Asked on NBC Sports if he was surprised to have been made a Ryder Cup assistant captain, Goydos went from “astonished” to “flabbergasted” to “giddy.”