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Stricker launches season with Kapalua win

By Reuters

Steve Stricker, ice-cool when it mattered most, recovered from a surprisingly slow start to clinch his 12th PGA Tour victory by three shots at the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii on Monday. 

Five strokes in front going into the final round, Stricker had his lead trimmed to just one early on the front nine before he regained control with five birdies in the last 11 holes. 

The American world number six, the highest-ranked player in the elite winners-only field of 27 at the Kapalua Resort, closed with a four-under-par 69 to post a 23-under total of 269. 

"It was tough," Stricker, 44, said greenside after being embraced by his wife, Nicky, and his daughters, Bobbi and Isabella. "I never let up today. 

"It's always tough trying to win and it's even more tough when you have a lead like I had. I played good though. 

"Overall I am very proud of what I did today and this week. And it's always cool to get a hug from your family walking off after you win." 

Britain's Martin Laird birdied five of the last seven holes for a 67 to finish alone in second place in the limited-field tournament which brings together PGA Tour winners from the previous season. 

Stricker's playing partner Jonathan Byrd, the defending champion, signed off with a 68 to tie for third with fellow American Webb Simpson (68). 

However, no one could catch Stricker over the hilly back nine on the Plantation Course where the American proved to be the master for all four days, covering those holes in an aggregate of 17 under. 

He finished off the tournament in style, coolly rolling in a seven-foot birdie putt at the par-five last before pumping his right fist in delight and then doffing his cap to the crowd.   

"I played really steady today," Stricker said after booking his place at Kapalua for next year. "I was proud the way I hit the ball, not so proud of the way I putted it but proud the way I hit it." 

For the second consecutive day, he had to recover from a slow start, having watched his five-shot cushion after round two also trimmed to one. 
He came under early pressure in the final round as Laird and Byrd each recorded two birdies in the first four holes to trim his overnight lead to three shots. 

Simpson, who had birdied the third, then rolled in a 40-foot eagle putt at the par-five fifth to lurk just two off the pace. 

Stricker, who had parred the first four holes, wasted a golden opportunity to birdie the par-five fifth when he three-putted from long range after reaching the green in two. 

He then surprisingly bogeyed the short par-four sixth, duffing a pitch from just 48 yards in the right rough and missing a five-footer to save par, for his lead to be cut to one. 

Stricker finally picked up his first shot of the day, rolling in a 24-footer at the tricky par-three eighth to move two strokes clear of the chasing pack at 19 under. 

He then gave himself extra breathing room with a tap-in birdie at the par-five ninth, where he chipped from just off the green to within a foot of the cup, to reach the turn three ahead. 

Though Byrd stayed hot on Stricker's heels with birdies at the 10th and 14th, the pacesetting American remained in front with birdies of his own at the 12th, 16th and the last. 

"I felt it kind of slipping away," Stricker said of his front nine. "But I was still patient, frustrated but patient. 

"I told myself if I could get a couple back before the turn I would be all right. That birdie on eight calmed me done quite a bit."