AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Three opening birdies gave Steve Stricker an eight-shot lead in what looked to be a runaway in the Bridgestone Seniors Players Championship on Saturday.
By the end of the day, Stricker was hanging on at Firestone.
Stricker started missing greens and missing putts until his lead was down to three shots. He steadied himself with a birdie on the par-5 16th and wound up with a 2-over 72 to lead Jerry Kelly by four shots going into the final round.
“I like where I stand now more than three hours ago,” said Kelly, the defending champion who trailed by as many as 10 shots at one point.
Stricker three-putted the 10th, took double bogey from the bunker on the par-3 12th and missed the green for bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes as his lead kept shrinking.
He narrowly cleared the water on the par-5 16th with a 4-iron and the ball bounded over the green into the rough. Facing a scary pitch back down toward the water, he lofted it perfectly to 4 feet for birdie.
Two regulation pars put him at 7-under 203.
“I had a five-shot lead starting the day, I’ve got four now, so all in all I didn’t give away too many,” Stricker said. “Had an opportunity to kind of really distance myself, and that was the plan today is to get out, get going and be aggressive and make some birdies and get out ahead. But kind of got side-tracked there in the middle.”
Kelly, who opened with a birdie, shot a 68. Ken Duke had a 70 and was another shot behind at 2-under 208. They were the only players who remained under par.
Stricker is going for his second victory of the year, and it looked for so long that this one might be a breeze. Starting with a five-shot lead, he birdied the first three holes to stretch his lead to eight shots over Paul Broadhurst and 10 shots over Kelly.
Stricker had gone 39 holes without a bogey until his first one at No. 4. He still was in command until it all started to fall apart on the back nine.
“Until you’ve made that first bogey, you feel like you’re pretty invincible,” Kelly said.
Stricker caught a bad break when his 6-iron on the 12th caught the top of the bunker and rolled into a lie so bad he couldn’t even get it on the green. Suddenly, it felt as though everything that could go wrong did until he played solidly over the final three holes.
“I’m fine,” Stricker said. “I just wish I didn’t have the little hiccups there in the middle.”
The winner of this major on the PGA Tour Champions gets a spot in The Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass next March.