Steve Stricker keeps 'plugging along,' rides strong finish to Ally Challenge title
Grand Blanc — Jack Nicklaus highlighted a celebrity shootout on Saturday, but on Sunday afternoon, the real thing took place during the final round of the Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club.
With the lead changing hands on a nearly hole-to-hole basis on the back nine, it was Steve Stricker who grabbed momentum when it mattered most, overcoming a bogey on No. 12 by recording birdie on each of the next four holes to seize control of the fifth playing of the Champions Tour event. He closed with a final round 67 to finish at 15-under, one shot clear of Brett Quigley, who finished the final three holes in eagle, birdie, birdie fashion.
Stricker, the hero captain of last year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, won for the second time this season and ninth time on the Champions Tour by outlasting an impressive leaderboard that included Jeff Maggert, who fired a final-round 65 to take the lead at one point before Stricker cruised by over the final few holes.
Former major champions Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington were also in the mix down the stretch while Steven Alker, the Charles Schwab Cup points leader and Senior PGA champion, also made a run before faltering late as seven players finished within four shots of Stricker.
“Yeah, I watched (the leaderboard) all the way around,” said Stricker, who played while his wife, Nicki, was on the bag. “I didn't play that well early on and I told Nicki, I'm like, ‘We've just got to be patient and just keep plugging along.’
“It was a little bit different day. It was windy, it was a little bit harder, I thought. Then I had that stretch of four holes where I made four in a row and that was the difference. I just kept plugging.”
It capped a heck of a weekend for Stricker, a three-time major winner on the Champions Tour. He fired an 8-under 64 during the second round on Saturday, helping make up for a tough opening round on Friday when he finished at 2-under 70.
It was after that first round that Stricker headed to the putting green for some work with his wife and fellow pro Jerry Kelly, the 2019 Ally Challenge champion who entered the week third in the Charles Schwab Cup standings.
“It’s about time he helps me,” Stricker joked as Kelly stood nearby following Stricker’s closing par on No. 18. “I help him all the time.
“No, seriously, him and Nicki got me on the putting green after the first round. I didn't putt very good the first round and they noticed a couple things. Jerry got right in there, he helped me. He knows my putting stroke as much as I know his, so we help each other and he came through for me this time. I owe him this one because all of a sudden it clicked and I was off and running.”
The win was big for Stricker, who entered the tournament fifth in the Schwab Cup standings. However, he’s likely not making a chase for the title his priority over the final few weeks of the season. Instead, he’ll be working his second job as caddy for his daughter, Bobbi.
Stricker was on the bag for Bobbi a week ago when she advanced out of the first stage of qualifying for the LPGA Tour and he’ll be there again in the next stage in the middle of October.
“(The goal) has always been to try to get up as close as I can to the Schwab Cup,” Stricker said. “Now my daughter's going on the second stage of Tour school so that changes things because I'm going to be looping and I'm going to be on the bag. So, I'm going to probably miss a couple events in there, but I'll keep playing as much as I can and hopefully keep playing well and get as close as I can.”
It was Stricker’s first appearance in the Ally Challenge but hardly the first time at Warwick Hills for both Quigley and Maggert, who have made it a regular stop, just as they did on the PGA Tour when the Buick Open was played each year.
It was that familiarity that helped Maggert, who shot 30 on the back nine and had four birdies in a row at one point to post 13-under when he got his sixth birdie of the back side on No. 18.
“I played almost all the tournaments here I think on the regular Tour starting in '91 and then all the ones that we've had on the Champions Tour, as well,” Maggert said. “The course is pretty much the same. I always remember the greens being really good here and having to make a lot of birdies to win.
“The golf course was in great shape this week, the greens were great, but that's kind of what we usually see here. Just glad to have a good week. Been struggling a little bit this year and hopefully this will be a sign of things to come.”
Quigley nearly came alive at just the right time.
Through 15 holes he was even for the day with two birdies and two bogeys on the front nine and all pars on the back until he came to No. 16. From there, Quigley made eagle on par-5, followed by a birdie at the par-3 17th and another birdie at the par-4 18th.
“I felt like I had done a lot of things well today and just not gotten much out of it and just trying to stay in there,” Quigley said. “Fortunately, got a good bounce on the second shot on 16 and made the putt, and then 17 and then 18. All of a sudden it went from absolutely nowhere to watching Steve finish on 18.”
That finish proved to be all Stricker needed, leaving the list of contenders just out of reach.