- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

PALM HARBOR, FLA. (AP) - Steve Stricker finished lunch and headed back to the practice range at Innisbrook, where he grabbed two bags of balls and stood in the warm wind for nearly an hour to make sure his swing was where he wanted it to be.

He had just finished off a bogey-free round of 4-under 67 and was tied for the lead with Nick Watney at the Transitions Championship.

He had not made a bogey in 24 holes.

Even on the good days, Stricker is careful to make sure there are no more bad days.

“I think for everybody, every year you enter into the year with a lot of unknowns, and you’re not sure how your game is going to be,” he said. “The start of the year to me has always been important, just so you feel like you get off to a good start. And I did this year. And I felt like I’ve just kind of continued on with the momentum.

“It got me in the right frame of mind to start the year off.”

He opened the season with eight straight rounds at par or better and was headed to victory in the Bob Hope Classic until a wind-blown final round of 77 dropped him into third. He carried that to Phoenix where he missed the cut. But instead of letting it eat at him, Stricker rebounded with a runner-up finish at Riviera, and his 67 on Friday at Innisbrook was his 10th straight round at par or better.

“I know that I’ve been playing well,” Stricker said. “I know I’ve been shooting some good scores. But no, I haven’t paid attention to that. I look at my stats and I realize I was up there in the stroke average. Obviously, I must have been shooting some decent scores.”

Watney has been doing even better.

With a 67 to join Stricker at 6-under 136, Watney earned a spot in the final group on the weekend for the third straight round. He played in the last group on Saturday and Sunday with Phil Mickelson last week at Doral, finishing one shot behind.

Watney won at Torrey Pines, nearly won at Doral, and here he is again.

Some might classify that as a hot streak.

“I guess I’m playing very well, but it really seems like this is just what I’m supposed to be doing,” Watney said.

Don’t get the idea this is a two-man race going into the weekend _ far from it.

Only seven shots separated first-from-worst, with the cut coming at 1-over 143. The smallest margin between top to bottom all of last year was eight shots at Hartford and Phoenix.

“You watch,” Tim Herron warned as he lumbered out of Innisbrook. “Someone early is going to get right back in this thing.”

That’s because the early starters have had the easier time the first two days.

Stricker and Watney both finished their rounds before the wind began to pick up, before the sunshine made the greens look brown.

A day earlier, Jim Furyk played in the morning and shot 65. On Friday afternoon, Furyk was 13 shots worse, shot 78 and nearly missed the cut. Timing is everything.

“Hit a lot of golf balls yesterday that bounced over the greens,” Charles Howell said after a 66 on Friday morning. “Today was a different course.”

Two dozen players were within four shots of the lead.

Jonathan Byrd reached 8 under through 11 holes until he kept finding the bunker and making bogeys. He had to settle for a 70 and joined Howell in the group at 5-under 137 that included two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (68), Stuart Appleby (67) and former Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman (69), who turned 50 last week.

“This is a golf course that it kind of scrunches the field a little bit,” said Joe Ogilvie, who joined that group after a 66. “You’re not going to see a guy … well, Furyk might get it to 10 under … but you’re not going to see a guy shoot 62 on this golf course.”

Turns out Ogilvie spoke too soon.

Ryo Ishikawa, the 17-year-old from Japan, had a 73 to finish at even-par 142 and make his first PGA Tour cut. He missed the cut in his PGA Tour debut last month at Riviera.

Masters champion Trevor Immelman had consecutive sub-par rounds for the first time since the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, shooting a 70 to join the group at 4-under 138 that included Rich Beem and Steve Flesch, who each had 67.

Stricker made his blunder early in the tournament when he took double bogey on the second hole from a plugged lie in the bunker and a three-putt, which really irritated him. But he has been solid ever since, and was especially happy about two birdies on the par 3, the last one coming on No. 8 with a 5-iron to 15 feet.

“If you play the par 3s well here this week _ play them at even par or better _ you’re doing well,” he said.

Watney seems to be doing everything well at the moment. He attributes most of that to a putting aid called “Inside Down the Line Putting Track” which swing coach Butch Harmon asked him to try. That was in October, and Watney has been rolling ever since.

First came his victory in the Buick Invitational with birdies on two of the last three holes, then a spirited duel with Mickelson in which Watney came up an inch short on a birdie putt at Doral to force a playoff.

“I’m keeping the game pretty simple and putting well,” Watney said. “Hopefully, that will continue.”

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