KAPALUA, Hawaii - Steve Stricker has a bad habit of losing big leads. He managed to slip back into his old habit of winning.
Despite losing most of his five-shot lead in only six holes, Stricker steadied himself in time to kick off the new PGA Tour season with a three-shot victory in the Tournament of Champions on Monday.
Right when it looked as though Stricker was coming unglued, he made back-to-back birdies at the turn. That restored his lead to three shots, and no one got closer than two shots the rest of the way.
Stricker birdied his last hole for a 4-under 69 for his 12th career win, which moved him to No. 5 in the world ranking.
Sweeter than the winner's lei draped around his neck on the 18th green at Kapalua were his two children, 13-year-old Bobbi Maria and 5-year-old Isabella, there to greet him with a hug.
Stricker held back tears - they usually flow freely after a win - perhaps a sign that he's getting used to this business of winning. It was his ninth PGA Tour win since he turned 40, and his eighth title in his last 50 tournaments.
As usual, he didn't make it easy on himself.
Stricker had a five-shot lead going into the Monday finish on Maui, and it was just about gone when he muffed a flop shot and took bogey on the sixth hole.
Martin Laird, Webb Simpson and Jonathan Byrd each got within one shot of Stricker on the front nine, but not for long. Stricker rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth, pitched to tap-in range at the par-5 ninth and was on his way.
Laird closed with a 67, and his birdie on the last hole put him alone in second place. Byrd kept most of the pressure on Stricker along the back nine of the Plantation Course, but he bogeyed the 17th. He had a 68 and tied for third with Simpson, who had a 68.
Stricker could not have started the new season better - all four rounds in the 60s, and already able to book his room at Kapalua for next year.
"It was tough," said Stricker, who finished at 23-under 269. "I never let up today. It's always tough trying to win, and it's even more tough when you have a lead like I did. I'm very proud of what I did today.
"And it's always cool to get a hug from your family walking off at the end."
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