Steve Stricker stood in the bunker left of the first fairway, eyed his ball in the rough on the edge of the trap, then looked at the flag 122 yards away.
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If it felt like he’d been in that position before, well, that’s because he had.
”I had that same stance in my pro-am,” he said. ”Same bunker, same exact shot. I was right in the same spot.”
All he wanted to do was get the ball on the green, which he did. And then came the shot of the day, a 75-foot putt for birdie that led to an 8-under-par 63 Saturday and a two-stroke lead after three rounds of the John Deere Classic.
”I was just trying to get a two-putt and par and move on,” Stricker said. ”To make a put like that, you don’t expect to, nor are the odds in your favor to make a putt like that. But it went in with perfect speed and it got me going.”
Stricker fashioned his best round of the year while closing in on his third straight victory in the tournament. He’s at 20-under 193 following a par on save on 18, where he twice hit into bunkers before drilling a 15-foot putt.
That put Stricker in a good spot because he’s won the last four times he held the outright lead going into the final round. Stricker said he often hears stats like that, but insisted he doesn’t remember them.
”I don’t put a lot of stock in numbers past, present, whatever,” he said. ”I just try to go out there and do the things that I’m capable of doing. You’ve just got to stick to your own game and that’s what I’ve been able to do the last four or five years.”
Zimbabwean Brendon de Jonge is alone in second at 195 after matching Stricker’s 63. Second-round leader Chez Reavie, who started the day two strokes up on Stricker, shot 68 and was 17 under, one ahead of Kyle Stanley (65).
With one more solid round, Stricker would join an elite group. Only 20 times previously on the tour has someone won a tournament three years in a row, a list that includes Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller,
Woods has done it six times and was the most recent to accomplish the feat, winning the Bridgestone Invitational in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
”I haven’t really given it much thought, but it would mean a lot,” Stricker said. ”It’s hard enough to win an event three times, let alone three in a row. So it will be tough. I’ve got to fight through nerves, but it would be special to be part of that list.”
As he has done so often recently at TPC Deere Run, Stricker made it look easy, even after getting into immediate trouble with that opening tee shot. He took a baseball-type swing to get out of the rough and hit a line drive that stopped on the front part of the green, where the pin was in to the right and in the back.
Then he stepped up and knocked his putt in, the ball rolling uphill, topping a crest and carrying back down into the center of the cup.
Stricker raised both arms in celebration, then smiled at playing partner Jhonattan Vegas and shrugged as if to say, ”When you’re hot, you’re hot.”
”At first, I thought I hit it too hard and then it looked like it was going to be good to tap in (for par),” he said. ”And then it just went right in the last couple of feet.”
Stricker moved into the lead with a 14-foot birdie putt on No. 7 as Reavie made bogey at 6. When Reavie bogeyed 8, he suddenly found himself four strokes behind — a six-shot reversal in about 90 minutes.
De Jonge, meanwhile, kept making birdies to keep Stricker from running away with the lead.
”I got off to a great start today, which was the key to set up the round,” de Jonge said. ”I think tomorrow’s going to be more of the same. You’re going to have to make a bunch of birdies. The golf course is in such good condition, the ball’s going so far, that you get a lot of wedges in your hands.”
Stricker birdied six of his first 10 holes before turning more humanlike down the stretch and making only two more birdies the rest of the way. But on this warm, breezy Midwestern day, no one was sharp enough to catch him, though for a few minutes at the end it looked as though his lead would drop to one.
His tee shot found a bunker left of the fairway and his second shot landed in a bunker in front of the green. He got the ball up to within 15 feet, not an easy putt by any means, but he knocked it in.
”That was a good save to kind of keep the momentum going into tomorrow,” he said.
De Jonge kept himself in position for his first tour victory if Stricker should falter on Sunday. He matched Stricker’s 30 on the front nine, then had his momentum blunted slightly when he bogeyed 13 after missing a 10-footer for par.
But he came back with a nifty chip from the fringe on 14 to set up a 2-foot birdie putt and capped his round with an approach from 163 yards to 11 feet for a birdie on 18.
De Jonge also was in contention going into the final round of the Transitions Championship, where he was just one stroke off the lead. But he shot a final round 73 to slip into a tie for fifth.
He seemed undaunted about facing down Stricker in the final round of this one.
”I think anybody’s got a chance that’s within a couple,” de Jonge said. ”Obviously you’re going to have to play a good round of golf. But yeah, I think everybody feels like they’ve got a chance.”
Reavie looked positively Stricker-like while shooting a 62 on Friday, but the putting stroke that made him so effective in that round deserted him. He played the front nine at 1 over before scrambling back with consecutive birdies on 13, 14 and 15.
Steve Marino had an even tougher day after starting just two off the lead. Playing with Reavie in the final twosome, Marino missed a couple of makeable birdie putts early, then had three bogeys in a four-hole stretch late in the round to finish with a 2-over 73 that left him 10 under for the tournament.