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Steve Stricker hangs on to win at Riviera

GOLF

He shoots a one-under-par 70 in the final round for a 16-under 268 total to earn the Northern Trust Open title and move up to the No. 2 ranking.

February 08, 2010|By Diane Pucin

Steve Stricker is a man without a major golf championship. He is nearly 43 years old but without a defining professional moment, yet when Stricker won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday afternoon at Riviera Country Club, he was exhausted, teary-eyed and officially the second-best golfer in the world.

And the best who is actually playing.

Tiger Woods is still No. 1, but as far as we know, not in imminent danger of playing competitive golf soon.

So the computer says that Stricker, humble and unassuming and absolutely unwilling to place his game at any level comparable to Woods', is the best man actually playing competitive golf right now.

If Stricker's final round score of one-under-par 70 and his four-day total of 16-under 268 felt more like hanging on than transcendent brilliance, if Stricker acknowledged he wasn't a good front-runner, unsure of how to protect what had been a six-stroke lead, it was still Stricker standing on the 18th green being interviewed on TV and wiping tears from his eyes.

He was the winner of $1.152 million, of enough ranking points to push him to No. 2 on the computer ahead of Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for 45th. Stricker finished two shots better than Luke Donald of Britain and three better than Dustin Johnson, who led after the first and second rounds, and J.B. Holmes.

Stricker had needed to finish the 15th hole, and play Nos. 16, 17 and 18 at dawn Sunday, leftovers from Saturday's third round that had been blown dead when 12 golfers were still on the course in the dark.

Stricker birdied twice, bogeyed the 18th and carried a six-shot lead into the start of the final round.

But Stricker's attitude wasn't that he was rolling easily to his eighth career win.

"The position I was in," he said, "if I don't win the tournament I'm going to be looked upon as the guy that didn't finish it off. Those thoughts run through your head and the guys from behind, they have nothing to lose and I knew that too."

Sure enough, his play-it-safe attitude seemed ill-fated when, after five holes of the final round, Stricker's lead was down to two shots over the 32-year-old Donald.

Stricker missed a five-foot birdie putt on the first, a hole where only he and Andres Romero among the top 15 finishers didn't record at least a birdie (former USC star Kevin Stadler, who tied for 10th, had an eagle).

"I hit a four-iron," Stricker said, "where it probably should have been a five-iron and I just tried to take the bunker out of play and hit it on the back of the green. That's the way I started the round, trying not to make a mistake."

Donald said he thought there was a particular opening after the par-three fourth hole, where Stricker bogeyed by missing a short putt and Donald birdied.

"He missed a short one on four and with me getting three birdies pretty quickly and narrowly missing one on four, and me hitting good shots on six and seven, if those two putts go, it could have been a bit of a different story," Donald said.

But Stricker steadied himself with birdies on the eighth and ninth holes.

"Those were huge," he said. "Those are typically not birdie holes and to make threes there was a huge lift."

Stricker also made a nervy 10-foot, par-saving putt on the 15h hole.

It is inevitable that Stricker will now hear himself called the best golfer to have never won a major tournament.

His best finish at one of the four top tournaments was a second at the 1998 PGA. Last year, Stricker tied for sixth at the Masters, tied for 23rd at the U.S. Open, tied for 52nd at the British Open and missed the cut at the PGA. Not the stuff of No. 1 players.

"There are a lot of good players out there that have not won majors," said Stricker, who mentioned in particular Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.

"You only get four cracks at it a year. It's difficult to do."

But expected when you're second-best in the world.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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