Turns out both sides were right.
Stricker watched a six-shot lead slip to two after just five holes Sunday at Riviera before he steadied himself and closed with a 1-under 70 for a two-shot victory over Luke Donald in the Northern Trust Open.
His fourth PGA Tour victory in his last 15 starts moved him up to No. 2 in the world ranking.
Stricker won for the eighth time in his career, and once again welled up with tears after the victory. This time, all it took was a reminder of where he was four years ago, when he lost his PGA Tour card.
“I remember where I was and where I am now,” Stricker said. “It doesn’t get any better.”
Stricker didn’t make it easy on himself, having to grind for pars as Donald kept pouring in birdies. But after Donald missed two short birdie attempts, Stricker fired off two straight birdies to restore a comfortable margin.
He finished at 16-under 268 and earned $1.152 million to go over $25 million for his career.
Donald made birdie on the 17th to again trim the lead to two shots, but that was as close as he ever got. He closed with a 66. Dustin Johnson had a 66 and J.B. Holmes made a late surge for a 67 to tie for third.
“It was hard today,” Stricker said.
“I aged a lot out there. It was a grind from the get-go.”
Phil Mickelson, trying to become the first player to win three straight years at Riviera, had a 73 and finished 14 shots behind.
Even as he left the course Saturday night leading by five shots, Stricker said he expected a long, tough day.
The long day came from having to return in the morning darkness to finish off his third round. With temperatures in the 40s before the sun climbed over Sunset Boulevard, he rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the 15th, hit 7-iron to 4 feet for birdie on the 16th and led by seven shots until a bogey on the 18th, his first in 32 holes. Stricker completed a 66 for a six-shot lead.
The tough part?
Stricker missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the easy opening hole and looked tight over the next hour as Donald applied enormous pressure. Donald had birdie chances inside 20 feet for the first eight holes, converting three of them. His 6-footer at No. 5 pulled him within two shots, and he followed that with a tee shot to 10 feet on the sixth.
Donald had the momentum. He just never had the lead.
He missed the birdie chance at No. 6, missed another birdie putt from 8 feet on the next hole, and that was his best shot. Stricker birdied the next two holes from inside 10 feet to take a three-shot lead to the back nine.
Stricker still didn’t look as good as he did the first three rounds, missing greens to the left. But he had five consecutive one-putt greens and continued to get himself out of minor jams.
This is the second time Stricker has gone to No. 2 in the world — he also got there in September after winning in Boston — although he likely still would have to win at three more times to catch Tiger Woods, who is out indefinitely as he tries to save his marriage.
Half of Stricker’s eight career victories have come in the last eight months dating to his playoff win at Colonial. He turns 43 later this month, and shows no sign of letting up.
Kevin Na shot a 66 to tie for 10th, enough to get him into the top 64 and qualify for the Match Play Championship in two weeks.
DIVOTS: The only time Stricker has not cried after a victory was last year at the Shark Shootout, during the silly season. ... Anthony Kim had two double bogeys on the front nine and closed with a 78 in his first PGA Tour event of the year. ... Ben Curtis missed birdie putts inside 15 feet on his last two holes. To have made either one of them likely would have qualified him for the Match Play Championship in two weeks. ... Paul Goydos had a 65 to match the low score of the final round. Asked on NBC Sports if he was surprised to have been made a Ryder Cup assistant captain, Goydos went from “astonished” to “flabbergasted” to “giddy.”