ARDMORE, Pa. — At 46 years, three months and 24 days, Steve Stricker came into Sunday's action with a chance at becoming the oldest U.S. Open winner in the event's 113-year history.
But somewhere, Hale Irwin — the winner of the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah at 45 years and 15 days — can rest easy. Stricker's bid to unseat him hit an early snag in the final round at Merion Golf Club as the Wisconsin resident carded a triple-bogey 8 on the par-5 second. He'd soldier through the disappointment to finish with a score of 76 and a tied for eighth finish with Luke Donald, his highest at the U.S. Open since placing fifth in both 1998 and 1999.
Still, the nightmare second hole will be a hard one to forget.
"It's just the nature of the game, I guess," Stricker said after the round. "It puts you in your place rather quickly at times."
Stricker came into the round as one of the sentimental favorites for golf fans. A 12-time tour winner with over $37 million in career earnings, Stricker recently cut back his schedule to spend more time with his family. The U.S. Open was only his second start since The Masters, but scores of 71, 69 and 70 allowed him to entertain thoughts of becoming the oldest first-time major winner in golf history. He entered the day at +1, two shots behind another 40-something, leader Phil Mickelson.
But it wasn't to be. After recording a par on the first hole, Stricker pushed his first drive on the second across Ardmore Avenue, the tight right-side boundary that felled Rory McIlroy during Saturday's third round. Stricker's shot dribbled across the street, through a chain-link fence and into a private backyard.
After hitting a provisional tee shot, Stricker went over to the roadway to inspect what had happened on the first drive.
"We confirmed it went across the road," said an official after seeing the golfer. "We can get the ball for you if it helps your peace of mind."
"Isn't it right there?" said Stricker, pointing at a spot in the yard.
An Andy Frain usher picked up the ball and returned it across the roadway. Stricker inspected it, saw that it was indeed his and then tossed it toward the fans as some sort of morbid souvenir. It hit the ground and a man brought it back to his hand with the handle of his umbrella.
Meanwhile, back in the fairway, Stricker addressed the provisional shot that had become his new reality. He tried to make up some ground with a four-iron, but then he got out in front of it and that ball went across the roadway too for another one-stroke penalty. Stricker's shoulders slumped. Merion had sunk his teeth into his ankles out of the starting blocks, just like it had done to many golfers who were younger than him.
Stricker would hit a decent putt to save triple bogey on the hole, but then he faced the hellhound that was the long par-3 third and scored bogey after a stiff wind knocked his tee shot into a bunker. A bogey on five would sink him further.
"It's just not the start I was looking for, making triple, and a good triple, on the second hole of the day," Stricker said. "And then you've got to turn right into No. 3 and it's a 260-yard shot into the wind ... Starting four over after three holes really wasn't what I had in mind today."
Despite his early struggles, fans in the galleries tried to will Stricker into some history. Golf fans often look for avatars of themselves out on the course and it wasn't hard for most to relate to the family man making a push for one last moment of ultimate glory.
"Do it for all us old guys," one man yelled.
"Hang in there, Strick!" said a few others.
"There's a lot of golf left, Steve!" reminded yet another.
Stricker was noticeably disappointed with the way he was playing, but the encouragement continued throughout the round. He recorded birdie on the short 13th and a birdie bid that came up just short in front of the big crowd on No. 17 drew big cheers. Stricker acknowledged the crowd with an appreciative smile, just like he had the gallery that cheered him for saving triple bogey on the second.
"The Philadelphia fans were incredible this week," Stricker said. "I got a tremendous amount of support, more than usual I would say. They kind of took to my backside, I guess and tried to root me along, even after the start I had today."
Stricker said he hadn't yet gotten over the disappointment of missing out on such a golden opportunity but that it "won't take me long to get over this."
"Golf is not the thing in my life as it once was," said Stricker, whose family made the trip and enjoyed the week with him in suburban Philadelphia. "That was the reason why I scaled back.
"Sure, I'm disappointed I didn't play better today and have a chance to win, but like I say, it's second in my life now or even further back. We've got kids and wives and other things like that that's more important. So I can get over this rather quickly, I think."