HARRISON, N.Y. — Steve Stricker never lost hope, even when all the signs were stacked against him.
He had gone 61/2 years and 146 tournaments since his last victory. Four times this year, he wasted prime chances to pose with the trophy. The worst feeling Sunday at The Barclays was seeing K.J. Choi pour in two birdie putts that measured a combined 95 feet that gave him the lead and left Stricker destined for more heartache.
In a stunning turnaround, the tears he shed on the 18th green were from sheer joy.
Stricker birdied four of his last five holes to close with a
2-under 69, turning a one-shot deficit into a two-shot victory over Choi and getting the inaugural PGA Tour Playoffs off to a rousing start — even with Tiger Woods sitting this one out.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Stricker said, still wiping his eyes.
It sure wasn’t easy.
Not with 10 players — five of them major champions — separated by three shots along the back nine at Westchester Country Club. Not with the memories of four blown chances still nagging him. And certainly not with Choi making two long putts that caused Stricker to bow his head, but not sag his shoulders.
“I thought I was hitting well enough to maybe make a few birdies coming in,” Stricker said, pausing to smile. “Obviously, not four out of the last five holes. But I tried to stay as positive and upbeat, just waiting for my time.”
And when his final birdie from 8 feet dropped into the cup, he raised his arms and hugged his caddie, Tom Matthews, who first caddied for Stricker when he won the 2001 Match Play Championship in Australia. Jerry Kelly, who grew up with Stricker in Wisconsin, was among the first to congratulate him.
An emotional player, Stricker could barely speak to the television cameras.
“It was hard, but it was fun,” Stricker said as tears streamed down the side of his face. “I never knew if I was going to win again.”
Stricker finished at 16-under 268 and moved atop the FedEx Cup standings by 2,050 points over Choi, who closed with a 70. Rory Sabbatini birdied the final hole for a 68 and third place, moving him up to No. 3 in the playoff race.
Woods skipped the first of four playoff events and tumbled to No. 4, nearly 5,000 points behind Stricker.
The next stop is the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, which starts Friday. There are three tournaments remaining before someone captures the $10 million deferred bonus, but all Stricker cared about was hoisting another trophy.
“I wasn’t out there thinking about the FedEx Cup points,” he said. “Obviously, winning the tournament is foremost. Everything that comes after that is icing on the cake. But yeah, I’m in great position now.”
His last victory on U.S. soil came 11 years ago at the Western Open, when he was considered one of the bright young American players. But his game slowly began to slide until he lost his PGA Tour card two years ago, and he spent the winter in Wisconsin hitting balls from the inside of a remodeled trailer to a frozen driving range.
After four close calls this year — two of them in majors — the hard work and a dose of Midwestern resiliency finally paid off.
Choi was going after his third victory of the year, and everything was falling his way. He took a share of the lead with a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 12, dropping his putter in surprise, then took the lead again with a 50-foot birdie putt on the 15th.
Stricker hung his head, but not for long.
He answered with a 12-foot birdie on the par-3 16th to regain a share of the lead, then hit wedge that stopped 4 feet from the cup for birdie on the 17th that gave him a one-shot margin. Choi hit his approach left of the par-5 18th green and could chip no closer than 15 feet, from which he made par.
“I’m going to take this as a good experience and try to do my best in the next three tournaments,” Choi said.
Geoff Ogilvy, playing down the road from his U.S. Open title last year at Winged Foot, closed with a 69 and tied for fourth with Mark Calcavecchia (65) and two-time Westchester champion Ernie Els (68).
Another shot back was Rich Beem, who had a share of the lead early in the final round and had to settle for a small consolation. He was at No. 134 in the playoff standings, and his tie for seventh moved him up to No. 113, getting him into the next round.
“I’m in next week,” Beem said. “I’ve got to play just as well next week to get to Chicago” for the third event.
Doug LaBelle also picked up a minor victory. He closed with a 68, making a 6-foot birdie on his final hole, and wound up at No. 120 in the standings to qualify for the Deutsche Bank Championship. Had he missed the putt, his FedEx Cup season would have been over.
The Barclays didn’t lack for drama at the top of the leaderboard, either.
A tentative start by the leaders allowed for someone to get hot and join the fray, and there were plenty of volunteers. Sabbatini ran off five birdies on the front nine. Calcavecchia had six birdies in a seven-hole stretch around the turn.
Phil Mickelson opened with three straight birdies, only to lose his momentum with a double bogey at No. 4 when he found trouble in the trees and missed a 4-foot putt. Mickelson shot 67 and tied for seventh, his first top 10 on the PGA Tour since winning The Players Championship in May.
Meanwhile, no one in the final group made a birdie until Stricker with a 10-foot birdie at No. 7. Even so, he had a share of the lead with Sabbatini as he headed for the back nine that seemed loaded with possibilities.
The final act, however, belonged to Stricker.
He last played this tournament in 1996, tying for 60th, and thought so little of the place that he told his wife to “take a picture because we’re not coming back.” The best picture of all was Stricker holding a crystal trophy over his head.