By Rodney S. Yap
Steve Stricker loves coming to Maui and Saturday he took a step closer to making a return trip to the Valley Isle with a tournament low 10-under 63, giving him a comfortable five-shot lead through 36 holes of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Stricker came one shot shy of tying the course record. He went to the par-5 18th hole needing eagle to tie the record, but his second shot came up short of the green. He made the birdie putt from 3-1/2 feet.
Stricker will play in the final pairing Sunday with Webb Simpson, who is at 10 under after shooting his second consecutive 68.
“Hopefully I can put a little pressure on him,” Simpson said. “I haven’t made any putts all week. I’m just not making them. There is still two days left, I’m hitting the ball great, hopefully it (the putts) will go in the rest of the way.”
Stricker played his final five holes in 5 under, including a 3-wood to 12 feet for eagle on the 15th hole that gave him some separation from Simpson and the eagle-eagle finish by Kevin Na.
“This game is never easy but I had it going today,” said Stricker, the best putter on Tour. “It’s always fun when you get rounds like this and I felt like I was going to make every putt I looked at there for a while.”
Stricker said the key was, “I gave myself a lot of opportunities.”
“I just try and do my own thing. I try and go out everyday and do my best and take one shot at a time and make some birdies.”
In solo third is Na, who shot a 9-under 64 that included the first eagle-eagle finish at The Plantation Course. Na played his last 10 holes of the day in 9 under.
Defending champion Jonathan Byrd, who started the day with a one-shot lead, posted a 2-under 70 and is at 8 under, tied with Martin Laird for fourth place.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” first-timer Simpson said of Stricker’s solid play. “He usually plays well here and at Sony, he loves the Hawaiian Islands.”
Since 2005, Stricker’s short-iron game — shots measuring from 50 to 125 yards in the fairway — has been impeccable. He routinely converts birdie on 1 in every 3 approach shots from this distance and has ranked No. 1 on the PGA TOUR in that category four times.
“There are a lot of short irons here if you guide the ball well,” explained Stricker, who has nearly $32 million in career earnings since turning pro in 1990. “I’ve been working really hard on my putting lately and it’s shown the last few days. It’s starting to feel better and I’m feeling better about my overall game.”
Although he has yet to win the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in five previous attempts, he does have three top-10s, including a runner-up finish in 2008.
The trade winds at Kapalua were between 10-15 mph for the second round, and is expected to be the same on Sunday, when action starts at 9:30 a.m. In Monday’s final round, the winds could pick up slightly.
Knowing how to deal with the trade winds — or the rare Kona winds — is part of the challenge at Kapalua.
Stricker, the highest ranked pro among the 27-player field at No. 6, did not anticipated his low score Saturday.
“I didn’t really. Early in the year you kind of find your way around the course and see what kind of shape your game is in, and the course is pure. This is the best I’ve seen it in all of the years I’ve been here. The greens are perfect, good speed, where you can be aggressive, yet sometimes you have to be careful with the downhill putts, but overall the course is pure.”
Well, you can always work on it and my alignment gets off every once in awhile and a start edging it out to the right and pretty soon I’m missing everything to the right . . . I’ve been really focusing on lining it up more correctly, which for me feels a little to the left. I’ve put in a lot of time already on these greens here this week and it is starting to feel a lot better.”
Sticker said his success is a direct reflection on his winning experiences.
“I think I’m more confident within myself and my game,” said the Wisconsin resident, who earned $3,992,785 in 2011. “I’ve been in this position more over the last few years. When good things happen you can build off of that and that’s what’s happened. And I’m getting older, and that’s the bottom line, and I’ve got a lot of experience. It’s fun to be out here and I’m a little more relaxed and I let things roll off my back a little more easier these days.
“But we’re only half way through and that’s the first thing I keep telling myself, so we still have a long ways to go. I just have to come out tomorrow and try and do the same thing as I did today. I can’t expect to go out and shoot a 10-under-par round again tomorrow, but I’m just going to take the first hole as it comes, each shot as it comes, each putt as it comes, and just continue to do the things that I do.”
Na started the second round at even par. He dropped a stroke at the fourth hole, then bounced back on the next hole with a birdie but was still at even par when he reached the par-5 ninth.
Things turned around in dramatic fashion for Na on par-4 17, including holing out from 221 yards. He followed that with an 10-foot eagle putt at the 18th.
The only other player to eagle the 17th at the Plantation course is Darren Clarke in 2004. Na’s 29 ties the back-nine record that Vijay Singh set, also in 2004.
For the first time in his career Na hit 18 of 18 greens in regulation.
“That was exciting and a lot of fun,” Na said after his round. “Kind of got off to a slow start today and then all of a sudden on the back nine I started getting it together. On 17, I hit a 5-iron, the that shot Brandel (Chamblee) is always talking about on TV, the cut off the hook lie. And I hit it in there perfect, and it kept rolling closer and closer and then I looked over at Kenny (Harmon) and asked him, ‘Where is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s in the hole.’
“Then I thought to myself. I can make back-to-back eagles, so I guess I’m thinking positive, and then a hit a beautiful second shot to the green and I kept telling myself, ‘This is for 29, 29, 29.’ ”