AKRON, Ohio – Fast starts and low rounds at Firestone Country Club are nothing new to Steve Stricker.
But, if the Ryder Cup captain gets any faster or goes any lower during the final three rounds he’ll likely leave the field distantly in his rearview mirror as the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship unfolds.
Stricker, 54, birdied five of his first nine holes on Thursday, including three in a row to close out his front nine, and went on to shoot 7-under 63 to take the first-round lead.
The 63 was Stricker’s personal best on the South Course, bettering the 64 he shot on two other occasions. It also was the lowest first round in Bridgestone Senior Players history.
Stricker’s nines of 33-30 gave him a 4-shot lead over two relative unknowns to Firestone fans. Ken Duke (35-32) and Englishman Paul Broadhurst (32-35) shared second place.
Reigning champion Jerry Kelly, who was paired with Stricker, was one of four players tied for fourth at 1-under 69 after nines of 35-34. The others are Marco Dawson (33-36), Bob Estes (34-35) and Gene Sauers (35-34).
Fast starts and superlative rounds on the South Course are part of Stricker’s Firestone DNA.
In the 2020 version of the Senior Players he opened with a 2-under 68 only to shoot 11-over during his final three rounds to finish at 9-over 289 and in a tie for 23d.
Part of that 68 including a hole-in-one on the par-3 seventh hole that helped get him to 5-under at one point.
In 2019, when Retief Goosen won by two shots, Stricker opened with a 6-under 64 then failed to break 70 the rest of the way and finished at 1-under 279.
He also laid a 6-under 64 on the field during the final round of the 2012 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. That lifted him into a tie for second place with Jim Furyk, each one shot behind winner Keegan Bradley. The 64 followed three consecutive rounds of 68.
“I have gotten off to good starts here before so I’ve got to continue with that,” he said, while acknowledging he is winless on the South Course. “Just have to keep playing with the confidence level that I played with today and keep trying to hit the shots I hit today.”
Stricker, who has been toying with his putter, its grip and how he holds it, needed just 22 putts on 14 holes and was not required to make many monsters as he hit the ball close to the hole all day. His longest birdie putts were 20 feet on the 17th and 15 feet on the 18th. His other birdie putts were close to or less than 6 feet.
“I’ve been struggling with my putting, the consistency of it,” he said. “I just haven’t been feeling that great on the greens lately and today was a good day. I putted well. I cleaned up nicely. I made all the little three, four, five-footers and those are what keeps the round going.”
After a roller-coaster front nine in which he had three birdies and three bogeys, Duke settled in for the final nine holes. He birdied three of his final four, including a chip-in from just off the 18th green for his seventh birdie of the day.
Broadhurst, who won the 2018 Senior PGA and the 2016 Senior Open Championship at Carnoustie, was nearly as steady as Stricker. The 55-year-old birdied the eighth and ninth holes that led to making the turn at 3-under, then reeled off nine consecutive pars to shoot himself into contention.
Stricker began play on the 10th hole on a sunny and windy day in which the winds grew progressively stronger as the day wore on.
“It got obviously windier as the day went on,” Stricker said. “There was a little bit of breeze right at the start and then it kept picking up, especially on our second nine. Coming down the stretch it was blowing pretty good.”
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