Originally created 08/16/98

Stricker, Singh hold PGA lead



REDMOND, Wash. -- Steve Stricker was in a tough spot on Sahalee's toughest hole.

He had 30 yards to the flag, trees lurking above and a deep bunker in front of him. The ball was sitting tight on grass that had been trampled by the gallery.

For the first time in what had been a flawless third round of the PGA Championship, Stricker showed the strain of contending for his first major.

Not for long.

Stricker saved his best for last Saturday, chipping to 10 feet and saving par for a 4-under-par 66 that left him tied for the lead with Vijay Singh.

"That may have been the best shot I hit all day," Stricker said. "That put the finishing touches on a good round for me. This is one of my best rounds ever under the circumstances and under the pressure."

Singh also was up to task, making par with a putt that ran through 10 feet of fringe and over a ridge on the 18th before sliding by the hole. He shot 67 to join Stricker at 7-under 203.

"It was a hell of a putt," Singh said. "I was just trying to get close, and it almost went in."

The shootout at Sahalee, which began with 13 players within three strokes of the lead, turned into a duel between Stricker and Singh that culminated with great shotmaking on the treacherous back nine.

For two players trying to win their first major, they could have their hands full on Sunday.

Four strokes back are defending champion Davis Love III, 1995 PGA champion Steve Elkington and Billy Mayfair.

Lurking another stroke back at 208 are Mark O'Meara, trying to join Ben Hogan as the only player to win three majors in a year, and Tiger Woods.

"If I get out there and play the way I did today -- only make the putts -- I've got a reasonable shot," said O'Meara, who made only two birdies in his round of 69. "I'll probably be three or four shots back, and that's never that bad."

O'Meara was two strokes back after three rounds when he won both the Masters and the British Open. A victory Sunday at Sahalee Country Club -- is it really possible? -- would match Hogan's 1953 trifecta of the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.

Stricker hopes to draw from the experience of the one major O'Meara didn't win this year. He was paired with U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen in the final round at The Olympic Club.

"I was able to watch what he did, and see how he handled himself," Stricker said. "He played solidly."

That's what it will take from Stricker and Singh.

"I'm thinking about winning the golf tournament," Singh said. "I can't be too confident. It's really up to me if I go out and win it or not."

Singh had a close call in the PGA Championship five years ago, when he tied the record for lowest score in a major with a 63 in the second round, but stumbled on the weekend with 73-70 and finished two strokes out of a playoff.

"I've just got to be thinking about what I'm supposed to do out there, not what I'm feeling," Singh said.

Stricker was in control from the start, swinging purely, quickly picking up his tee as his drives split through the corridor of trees and onto the fairway.

When he holed an 18-foot putt for birdie on the 444-yard eighth hole, he became the first player all week to get to 6-under.

But Singh didn't back off, not after two bogeys on the back nine stopped his momentum and not when his approach was swatted down by a Douglas fir on the par-5 11th.

He chipped up to three feet for birdie, knocked in a 10-footer for birdie on the par-3 13th and then really found his groove, belting a drive 333 yards on No. 15 and punching a wedge into six feet for another birdie to take the lead at 7-under.

Then came Stricker, hitting a 7-iron from the bunker at No. 16 to 10 feet for birdie.

Maybe the roar of the crowd that rose up through the trees woke up everybody else. Just when it looked like the PGA would come down to a duel between two players looking for their first major, Elkington, O'Meara, Love and even Woods gave a tantalizing peak at Sunday.

Love, trying to become the first repeat champion since the PGA went to stroke play in 1958 -- and the first since Denny Shute in 1937 -- bogeyed three of the first six holes before turning it around with back-to-back birdies.

His chance for a rare birdie on No. 18 lipped the cup, but he finished at 69 and was just four strokes off the lead.

"I only had one guy to beat last year at Winged Foot," said Love, who dusted off Justin Leonard for a five-stroke victory. "This time, I have to have some help and play a great round. It's a much tougher situation. But I feel I have at least a chance, because I've done it before."

Woods shot 70, a score that easily could have been much worse.

Despite a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe on the first hole, Woods struggled with accuracy from the tee and even the fairways, but managed to stay in the hunt for his first major since the 1997 Masters with a gutsy short game.

He made bogey on the par-5 second hole with a 5-iron in his hands for a second shot, and also bogeyed the par-3 fifth hole by flying the green. But he made nine straight pars from there, including a save from the back lip of the bunker on No. 10.

"I felt I couldn't control my shots that well," Woods said. "I had to somehow manage my way around and gut it out. I did a pretty good job of that today."

At five strokes back, Woods still liked his chances.

"It all depends on the conditions," he said. "If I fire a good, solid round, you never know what could happen in a major."

The conditions couldn't have been better than they were Saturday, when a morning drizzle set the table for a shootout. Even before the leaders teed off in soft, overcast conditions, there was enough proof that Sahalee would be as gentle as it had been all week.

Greg Kraft made seven birdies in shooting a course-record 65, one stroke better than Woods and Singh in the first two rounds. Fred Couples finally gave his hometown Seattle gallery something to cheer about with a 67 that left him at 212.

"The course can be had by somebody today, but not everybody," Couples said after finishing his round in the later morning.

That certainly proved to be the case.

Only six of the 14 players who started the third round under par managed to shoot in the 60s.

Colin Montgomerie, who started the round one stroke behind Singh, pulled into a share of the lead with a two-putt birdie over the ridge from about 75 feet on No. 2, but then self-destructed.

He bogeyed No. 3 from the bunker, and he chopped his way through the rough and trees on the 444-yard eighth hole for a double bogey. Montgomerie, a runner-up three times in the majors, shot 77 and stormed off to the clubhouse.