AKRON, Ohio — As Steve Stricker stepped to Firestone Country Club’s par-3 15th hole, his lead over Harrison Frazar had been reduced to one stroke and he was seeking separation.
His 4-iron approach left a 40-foot birdied putt which he remembered from past experience.
When the putt dropped, Stricker gave a fist pump and when Frazar missed his, the former knew that he was in the driver’s seat.
Stricker then got an advantage on the par-5 16th when he was the only one of his threesome to hit a fairway and his steady wedge game delivered for another birdie and ultimately a three-shot victory over David Toms at the Kaulig Companies Championship.
“I mean, that really was the turning point right there,” Stricker said of 15. “That’s a killer when you’re on the other end of that. I know that I’ve been there and it’s demoralizing, but on my end, it was really fun, to be honest.
“I mean, that’s why we’re out there playing. Those two holes definitely won me the tournament.”
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) July 16, 2023
Stricker is now tied for the fourth-most majors in PGA Tour Champions history at seven with Hale Irwin and has won three majors this season, marking the first time since Bernhard Langer in 2017 and fourth time overall that this has occurred.
In terms of how he stacked up against the field performance-wise, he was in the top 10 of each category with the exception of driving distance and sand saves.
“I’m playing very consistently,” said Stricker. “I have a lot of belief and trust in what I’m doing, I’m not getting rattled. Today I felt very comfortable out there being in that position, and I think that’s the difference from now to other years on Tour.
“I never got into contention like I’m getting into contention now on the Champions Tour. I have more cracks at it, more times to fail, more times to succeed. Then when you do succeed, you can draw off of those times.”
Toms had an uneven front nine, but four birdies to open his back nine placed him in the chase, before Stricker’s 15th and 16 holes.
Still, it was Toms’ third top-10 finish in four starts at Firestone Country Club.
“On the back nine I hit some really good iron shots, made some nice putts, and if I could have hit my driver a little better in the last five or six holes, I could have done some real good stuff, but I was pleased with it,” Toms said.
“The golf course got longer overnight, so that kind of hurt me a little bit. I had some longer clubs compared to the first three days and I think it made it play a little bit wider probably.”
Overnight co-leader Harrison Frazar overcame an early flinch but could not string scores together, but even in defeat, tied for third place, his best finish on the PGA Tour Champions.
“That putt (Stricker) made on (15) and then that wedge shot he hit on 16 was one of the best wedge shots I’ve ever seen,” said Frazar. “That was a one-two punch and the rest of us were out.
“That’s a hell of an experience, leading a major for that long, sleeping on it for a couple of nights. It was a great experience, and having all those people out there was fantastic. I’ve known these guys forever but being in the battle with them showed me that I can do this.”
Defending champion Jerry Kelly placed 12th in the event.
Prior to the event, Kelly was critical of the setup, desiring a heavier rough, a clear penalty for a wayward drive. It was clear that Kelly was disappointed after, but he stuck around after he finished played to congratulate Stricker.
Stricker has secured himself a spot in next year’s Players Championship on the PGA Tour, where he will once again try to outdo his friend and fellow Wisconsinite, this time by breaking a less-than-year-old record Kelly has of being the oldest to make the Players cut.
The now seven-time PGA Tour Champions winner celebrated the occasion by jokingly mocking Kelly’s picture commemorating last year’s title.
KAULIG COMPANIES CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL ROUND LEADERBOARD
- Steve Stricker -11
David Toms -8
T3. K.J. Choi -7
T3. Ernie Els -7
T3. Harrison Frazar -7
- Bernhard Langer -5
T7. Stewart Cink -4
T7. Dicky Pride -4
T9. Alex Cejka -3
T9. Scott Parel -3
T9. Brett Quigley -3
• Dicky Pride fired a 5-under-par 65 Sunday, one of three to do so on the day and one of five overall for the tournament. This wound up being the second-lowest round of the week.
Pride’s came bogey-free, making his effort even more enjoyable.
“I really played solid all week,” he said. “Today was kind of special because anytime you go out on this track with no bogeys, no fives you’ve done something.”
After top-10 finishes in his last two events, Pride admitted he was tired but was able to bounce back, while displaying patience at Firestone, fueling momentum for the Boeing Classic, in just under a month’s time, his next start.
“I need to get away for a little bit and take a week off, but I usually don’t last more than four or five days before I get the itch,” said Pride. “I’m going to write down all of the things I did this week, what I was thinking, my keys, what worked and get ready for Seattle.”
• Kenny Perry posted his lowest score of the year Sunday with a 6-under 64, the lowest score of anyone in a single round this week. His effort ended on the ninth hole where he putted from the fringe and the ball comfortably found the hole.
It has been a trying year for Perry, who left golf in 2021 to assist his wife Sandy who has battled Alzheimer’s, but he made his return in April with this being his seventh start of the season.
Perry’s Sunday surge vaulted him up the leaderboard to T23, his best finish this season.
“Friday afternoon after I posted 76, this whole year I’ve been pulling left, ball starts left, hooks left, pull, hook,” he stated.
“I said ‘heck with this’. I took my grip, and I went from seeing one knuckle to seeing four knuckles. Major swing in the left hand, never done that and now all of a sudden, I have face control. The last two days I hit my big, high draw like it was the old KP.
“My left hand had gotten way too weak and would not support the golf shot, it would just give up at the ball, it would shut the face down and left it would go.”
Gallery & article credits: Colston Cooper