SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Steve Stricker is the man to beat when he shows up on the PGA Tour Champions.
“Let’s just get it on the table, Steve Stricker is kind of becoming a jerk,” fellow player Billy Andrade joked Friday, a day before Stricker opened a six-stroke lead in the U.S. Senior Open.
Seeking his second senior major title after winning the Regions Tradition by six strokes in May in Alabama, the 52-year-old Stricker had a tournament-record 18-under 192 total on the rain-softened Warren Golf Course. He shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday and extended his bogey-free run to 48 holes.
“Much the same as it was the first two days, just driving it in the fairway,” Stricker said. “Hit some pretty good iron shots into the greens. Just didn’t get into too many problems. That was the key. And if I did, I was able to get it up-and-down or make a save of some sort.”
The 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, Stricker has split time between the PGA Tour and the senior circuit since turning 50. He’s making his first start in the event after skipping it the last two years.
“I don’t know why,” Stricker said. “I think because I was playing more on the regular tour. Last year, I was scheduled to go, and I don’t know, I was tired or just coming off of our tournament that we host in Madison. I think it’s just a scheduling thing that has gotten in the way of me coming the last couple years, and it finally worked out this year.”
He opened with a 62 to tie the tournament record and share the first-round lead with David Toms, then shot a 64 on Friday to take a two-stroke advantage.
“The course toughened up a little bit today,” Stricker said. “The wind was coming from a different direction, kind of a west-northwest to almost a northwest wind, and it played a little bit different. Greens firmed up. Some of the pin locations were a little bit tougher, and you could tell in the scoring, too.”
Fellow Madison, Wisconsin, player Jerry Kelly was second after a 70. Kelly beat Stricker and Retief Goosen in a playoff last week in Madison in the PGA Tour Champions event that Stricker hosts.
“I’m going to have to be the aggressor,” Kelly said. “He’s (Sticker’s) hitting it long and straight. He’s got a lot less in than me. He can pick apart a golf course. I’m going to have to play flawless. I mean, flawless. And I’m going to have to make a lot of putts.”
Defending champion Toms was third at 11 under after a 70.
“It just wasn’t very good golf,” Toms said. “I was proud of the way I hung in there, got the ball up-and-down quite a few times today. I felt like I was in between clubs all day and I was either trying to hit one too hard, too easy, work it one way or the other, and I just never pulled off the shots.”
Bob Estes had a 68 to get to 10 under.
With wife Nicki working as his caddie, Stricker has hit 35 of 42 fairways, 45 of 54 greens and needed just 83 putts. He has played Nos. 3-5 — the toughest stretch on the course — in 4 under for three days.
“Those are holes that can come up and get you, so I’ve been trying to play them smart,” Stricker said.
He birdied the par-4 third with a 6-foot putt and the 227-yard, par-3 fifth with an 18-footer.
Stricker broke the 54-hole record of 15 under set by eventual winner Olin Browne in 2011 at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, and matched by Kirk Triplett in 2017 at Salem in Peabody, Massachusetts. Fred Funk set the 72-hole mark at 20 under in 2009 at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Indiana.
Tom Watson, who equaled his age 69 on Thursday and bettered it with a 68 on Friday, had a 73 to drop to event par. Gary Nicklaus, making his debut in the event with father Jack, the winner of 18 majors, and mother Barbara watching, struggled with his putter and shot 75 to fall to 4 over.