After 17 bogey-free holes on Friday, Steve Stricker found himself leading the Waste Management Phoenix Open outright as he stood in the middle of TPC Scottsdale’s ninth fairway, about 160 yards from the hole.
“Tried to hit just a little 8-iron on the last hole,” he said. “I was in between clubs and hit it awful.”
Stricker bogeyed the hole to shoot 5-under 66, yet he still found himself tied for the lead. Yes, the 53-year-old Stricker, who is a five-time winner on the PGA Tour Champions and later this year will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team, is at 11 under along with Keegan Bradley.
“I haven’t been in this position for quite some time out here,” Stricker said after Friday’s round. “This is why we’re here, to play at this stage, at this level. So, it felt good to get in there and to start the way I did today.”
In the same week golf’s governing bodies made another official announcement about what they deem concerning distance gains at the sport’s top levels, Stricker co-paced the field halfway through Day 2, doing so while averaging just 294 yards off the tee. He canned a 13-footer for birdie on his second hole, the par-4 11th, to get things going and later added his fourth birdie of the day by getting up and down at the short par-4 17th. His closing bogey was only his second through 36 holes.
“I played really solidly to start the day and I got under par on that opening stretch, which is a good stretch when it’s so cold in the morning, and I hit some quality shots,” Stricker said. “That gave me some confidence going forward.”
Stricker is making his fifth PGA Tour start of the season, a number that includes last fall’s U.S. Open, which he qualified for by winning the 2019 U.S. Senior Open. This week will mark his third made cut, though his best finish so far is a T-17 last fall at Mayakoba.
He didn’t tee it up in the PGA Tour Champions opener last month in Hawaii, but since joining the senior circuit in 2017 Stricker owns 22 top-10s in 26 starts.
“I’ve always said that each tour helps,” Stricker said. “I’ve played both tours the last three years, and each tour helps the other Tour. When I play out here and I go to the Champions Tour event, the courses are a little bit shorter, the pins are a little bit more generous, so playing out here helps me when I go there. And then when I go there and get in contention or win an event, I feel that that gives me confidence and motivation to come back out here and play.”
Billy Horschel was on No. 17 Friday when he looked at the leaderboard and saw Stricker’s name.
“I was like, man, he turned back the clock this week a little bit,” Horschel said. “He’s still a great player. He’s still a great putter, great iron player. Obviously he doesn’t hit it as far as he used to 10 years ago, so when you look at this course, distance does matter a little bit, but you’ve still got to hit your irons. It’s a great mid-iron to wedge course, and he’s always done that really well.
“I mean, he’s 53. He’s still got a lot of game. He still competes really well. It’s not shocking to see.”
Stricker’s last victory came at Kapalua in 2012. Should he end the drought and win Tour event No. 13 on Sunday, it would mark a new Tour record for oldest winner, supplanting Sam Snead, who won his Tour-record 82nd title at the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at 52 years, 10 months and 8 days old.
“I mean, I know it’s a long shot,” Stricker said. “I’ve got to play my very best, just like anybody else does out here. But you know, I’ve been there. I’ve won a few times out on this Tour and I know what it takes, although it’s been a while. It would be fun to see how I handle it if I do get that opportunity.”