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Stricker gets last-minute start and holds his own at Players

Steve Stricker plays a shot on the fifth hole during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 11, 2021 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) (Sam Greenwood, 2021 Getty Images)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Steve Stricker was planning to spend the week at his winter home in Naples. He was still in bed Thursday morning some 350 miles away when The Players Championship began.

In a span of about nine hours, the 54-year-old Ryder Cup captain caught a private flight to St. Augustine, got into the field, drove 30 minutes to the TPC Sawgrass, was tested for the coronavirus, received his negative test rules, made five birdies in eight holes and shot a 2-under 70 that left him five shots out of the lead.

“I mean crazier things have happened, right? And I keep telling myself that,” Stricker said.

Stricker contended at the Phoenix Open and tied for fourth, which boosted him up the priority list. Still, he was the fifth alternate going into this week and after finishing at Bay Hill, headed south for a week off.

By Wednesday, he already was up to the second alternate. Brooks Koepka pulled out with a leg injury. Danny Willett tested positive for the coronavirus. John Huh took his name off the alternate list. And Stricker started making plans.

He found a plane he could use if it came down to that, knowing Justin Rose had withdrawn from Bay Hill on the weekend with a bad back and hearing that Harris English was having back issues, too.

English withdrew first.

“I'm laying in bed this morning at 6:45, just kind of woken up, and they said, ‘You’re now the first alternate.' And I'm like, ‘Well, I’m coming,'" Stricker said.

English's caddie, Eric Larson, had been keeping in touch and Stricker suggested he stick around to work for him if necessary. English thought that was a good plan, too.

Stricker said the flight to St. Augustine took about 30 minutes, and by that time, Rose had withdrawn.

The PGA Tour had a car waiting for him to drive about 30 minutes to the course. He went straight to testing and had lunch in the parking lot waiting an hour or so for the results to come back. That left him enough time to get his head on straight, hit a few balls, chip and putt.

He drilled one down the middle, hit wedge to 15 feet and made birdie and he was on his way.

“The guy I really need to thank is John Huh. He took his name off that alternate list. So I wouldn't have gotten in if he would have decided to play,” Stricker said. “Never thought I would be here, but excited to be here.”

Stricker last played this event in 2018 as he began to limit his schedule.

He had a three-putt bogey on the par-3 13th, but then ran off four straight birdies, sticking it tight on the 14th, rolling in a 25-foot birdie on the 15th, two-putting from 50 feet for birdie on the 16th and making a 15-footer on the par-3 17th. That was the last of his birdies.

“I just was running out of gas on the other side, just trying to make pars at that point and get it to the house,” he said.

By then, it had been a long day that ended much differently than he imagined when he woke up.