OAKMONT, Pa. — File this away for future reference: If the U.S. Open comes down to the final shot on the 72nd hole on Sunday, Steve Stricker may be your guy.
Stricker struggled up the 18th hole Saturday afternoon at Oakmont, laying up to the crosswalk 74 yards from the pin. Then, in what almost has to be more than coincidence, he holed his lob wedge shot, turning a potential bogey into a surprising birdie.
That gave him a 68 and left him at six over par, within striking distance of the leaders, who hadn’t yet made the turn in the third round.
As for the coincidence, give yourself Big Double Bonus Points if you remember Stricker holing out from a greenside bunker at Winged Foot’s 9th hole last year — his final hole of the second round. That equally unlikely birdie, from 15 yards away, gave the Wisconsin native the Open lead after 36 holes.
“What a way to finish,” Stricker said Saturday. “You don’t expect to hole it, obviously. It’s incredible.”
Holing out is a sure way to improve your putting stats. Stricker, who had 36 putts in the opening round, needed only 13 on Friday on Oakmont’s back nine, and only 12 on Saturday.
His theatrics weren’t limited to the 18th hole on Saturday. He also chipped in over a ridge from behind the 4th green for a birdie after his caddie, fellow Wisconsin native Scott Steele, told him, “Chip it in.” Steele was on the bag when Larry Mize chipped in to win the 1987 Masters.
Stricker looked over at him and smiled impishly after the ball hit the flagstick and dropped.
Stricker, 40, a resident of Madison, Wis., has a penchant for U.S. Opens. He tied for fifth in 1998, when he was paired with the eventual winner, Lee Janzen, in the final round. He was fifth again at Pinehurst the next year, 16th in 2002 at Bethpage Black, and tied for sixth last year when he recovered from a third-round 76 after holding the lead.
He was optimistic on Saturday afternoon that he’d be in the running once again Sunday.
“For sure, I have a chance now, I believe I do,” he said. “I probably need some of the leaders to come back to me a little. I’ll have to have another low one, but I have a chance.”
Stricker said he was just trying to salvage par on 18 for the honor of shooting an under-par round, a rare thing at mighty Oakmont. “I was just trying to stay in the red,” he said. “It’s so hard to do that here.”
Many observers thought he revived his career last year at Winged Foot, but he actually started turning things around while practicing at home in the weeks before the tournament. “That’s what you have to do at the Open,” he said. “You don’t find your game at the U.S. Open.”
He finished second the next week at the Booz Allen Classic, and his good play has continued this year, with a fourth in Hawaii, a fifth at the Honda Classic, and a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at the Wachovia Championship. In the last year, he’s done just about everything but win. The roar he earned with that last shot at 18 felt pretty good, he admitted.
“It’s been a while,” he said with a smile. “That was a thrill.”