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Birdie run saves Stricker

Steve Stricker runs off four straight birdies after his Tournament of Champions lead was at one in Round 3.

Associated Press

Steve Stricker runs off four straight birdies after his Tournament of Champions lead was at one in Round 3.

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Steve Stricker finished the third round of the Tournament of Champions the way he started, with a five-shot lead.

Only it wasn't easy.

Stricker watched his lead dwindle to a single shot on the back nine Sunday before running off four straight birdies on his last four holes for 4-under 69 and a big lead going into the final round of the PGA Tour season opener.

He was at 19-under 200, five shots clear of defending champion Jonathan Byrd (67), Martin Laird (67) and Webb Simpson, who also had 69 while playing in the final group with Stricker.

Stricker, after a two-putt birdie on the 15th, chipped in for birdie on the 16th hole, then knocked in short birdie putts on the last two holes. Through three rounds, Stricker is 13 under on the five closing holes at the Plantation Course at Kapalua.

"I wasn't making any birdies, and it seemed like everybody else was," Stricker said of his play Sunday. "I knew it was going to be tough.

"When you're leading a golf tournament, it's just hard to keep that momentum. When you're not making birdies, you feel like you're letting things slip away. I felt everyone was coming after me, and I was coming back to the pack."

Simpson had a 30-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole for a share of the lead. He missed. Jonathan Byrd had a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th for a share of the lead. He missed.

"(I) really had a great chance on the last three holes to finish a little bit better," Byrd said, "kind of finish the way kind of Stricker has, and maybe be two shots back or so, but … oh, well.

"(Stricker is) a tough guy to catch. But I don't think any lead is too much."

Tournament organizers decided this year to push the start of the 72-hole stroke-play event back a day, to Friday, so the finish would not bump up against the NFL playoff games on Sunday. The final round is today.

The tournament for the winners of last year's PGA Tour events and the four majors has 27 players, the fewest since the event moved to Kapalua in 1999.

European: Louis Oosthuizen holed a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 17 to top Tjaart van der Walt and defend his title at the Africa Open at East London, South Africa. The 2010 British Open champion beat Van der Walt by two shots after closing with 6-under 67 for 27-under 265 at the season-opening event. Van der Walt shot 69 to finish one shot ahead of Retief Goosen (69).

Birdie run saves Stricker 01/08/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 8, 2012 11:48pm]
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