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Stricker takes lead halfway into opener

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Steve Stricker, considered the best putter on the PGA Tour, felt as though he couldn't miss Saturday at Kapalua. That meant big trouble for the rest of the field at the Tournament of Champions.

Stricker made even some longer putts look like tap-ins on his way to 10-under 63, giving him a five-shot lead over Webb Simpson halfway through the PGA Tour's season opener.

Stricker played the final five holes in 5 under, which included a 3-wood up the hill and into a blazing sun that settled about 12 feet away for eagle. That let Stricker get separation from Simpson, and from the amazing eagle-eagle finish by Kevin Na.

Stricker was at 15-under 131, two shots off the 36-hole record that Ernie Els set in 2003.

Na, six strokes back at 9 under, wasn't even part of the picture until he holed a 5-iron from 221 yards for eagle on the 554-yard 17th hole, then hit 3-wood down the hill on the par-5 18th to about 10 feet for another eagle.

"I think it'll be the best finish of my life," Na said.

It turned a good round into 64, and kept Na in the hunt against a 27-man field that suddenly felt much smaller when Stricker put together a strong finish of his own.

Only eight players were within 10 shots of Stricker.

Defending champion Jonathan Byrd, who led Friday after shooting 67, had 71 and was tied for fourth with Martin Laird (70) at 138, seven strokes behind Stricker.

Starting with a simple up-and-down on the par-5 ninth, Stricker was 7 under over the last 10 holes.

"I felt like I was going to make every putt I looked at for a while," Stricker said.

His run began with a wedge against the wind that landed 7 feet below the hole on No. 14. After eagle on No. 15, Stricker holed a 15-foot birdie from the front of the green on the 17th, and finished with a long two-putt birdie from just off the 18th. He has played the par 5s in 9 under for the week.

EUROPEAN: Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen birdied three of his final four holes for 6-under 67 to share the third-round lead at the Africa Open in East London, South Africa. He and Tjaart van der Walt (65) were at 21-under 198, one shot ahead of 2009 winner and two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen (66).

Stricker takes lead halfway into opener 01/07/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 8, 2012 12:15am]
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