KAPALUA, Hawaii — Steve Stricker never looked comfortable at Kapalua until he walked off the Plantation Course with the same five-shot margin that he started with Sunday in the Tournament of Champions.
Right when he felt as if he was letting everyone back into the hunt, Stricker birdied his last four holes for a 4-under 69 that restored his cushion going into the Monday finish in Maui.
Webb 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 that one.
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.
He was at 19-under 200, five shots clear of defending champion Byrd (67), Martin Laird (67) and Simpson, who also had a 69 while playing in the final group with Stricker.
Through three rounds, Stricker now is 13-under par on the five closing holes at the Plantation Course.
"I wasn't making any birdies, and it seemed like everybody else was," Stricker said. "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."
A game that had felt so easy on Saturday when he shot 63 turned into a grind. That much became clear when he missed on the first easy birdie chance, the par-5 fifth where the second shot goes over a gorge.
He played conservatively out to the left, then chose to chip from just off the putting surface and knocked it over the green, having to scramble for par.
The more pars Stricker made, the more he let other players back into the hunt.
Stricker began the third round with a five-shot lead over Simpson, and only five players were closer than 10 shots of him.
Byrd, despite consecutive bogeys early in the round that put him nine shots behind, began his rally with an eagle on the fifth hole. Laird made four birdies on the front nine and made the turn in 12 under.
Stricker's cushion effectively was gone in two holes.
After making a 20-foot birdie putt on the seventh, he ended his streak of 30 holes without a bogey with a three-putt on the eighth, missing badly from just over 30x00BD> feet.
Then on the par-5 ninth, his lob wedge came up woefully short and rolled back down to the fairway. Again, Stricker did well to scramble for par on a birdie hole.
Simpson birdied the eighth for a two-shot swing, then picked up birdies on the 10th and 12th to close within one shot.
Stricker was clearly agitated leaving the 12th tee after pulling his 3-wood into a bunker, thumping his club into the turf. For this mild Midwesterner, even that trace of angry is unusual.
But no one ever caught up to him.
Simpson missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the 13th for a share of the lead. Byrd, playing two groups ahead of them, had a 4-foot birdie putt into the grain on the 16th for a share of the lead, and hit it so weakly it never reached the hole.
And then, Stricker came to life.
He has played the five-hole closing stretch in 13-under par for the week, and this solid finish Sunday helped him restore the lead.
It started with another fairway metal onto the par-5 15th to 30 feet for a two-putt birdie.
Then, after coming up short of the green on the 16th, he chipped in for birdie, and the intensity of the fist pump showed what kind of day it had been.
Stricker added his third straight birdie with a shot into 4 feet on the 17th. And when he walked off the 18th green with a two-putt birdie from just off the green, he was back to where he started and poised to open the year with a win in Hawaii.