FRISCO, Texas – The 2023 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship turned into an event befitting of its rugged new Texas setting on Sunday at PGA Frisco’s new Fields Ranch East course. As the town stood watch, the final round turned into a good ol’ fashioned Western shootout between two of golf’s most tenacious, toughest gunslingers.
In the end, it was Steve Stricker, the major maestro, prevailing in a playoff over Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who pretty much had controlled the tournament from his opening 64 on Thursday until late on Sunday. The KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, Stricker’s first, marks Stricker’s sixth major as a senior golfer, and held special meaning. It was the PGA which gave Stricker a chance to be U.S. Ryder Cup captain at the 2020 Ryder Cup (played in autumn 2021) in his home state of Wisconsin. Stricker called it the honor of his lifetime.
The captain that Stricker beat at Whistling Straits? Padraig Harrington.
Stricker, 56, shot 3-under 69 on Sunday, one better than Harrington, who failed to break 70 for the first time this week. Both players finished on 18-under 270 in the first major to be staged at PGA Frisco, which will hold many in the future, including the 2027 PGA Championship. PGA Tour Champions rookie Stewart Cink, just days past his 50th birthday and competing for the first time among the over-50 set, finished alone in third, his closing eagle-3 leaving him two shots outside the playoff. He closed with 69.
“The thing is super heavy,” Stricker said, admiring the tall, shiny Alfred S. Bourne Trophy at his side. “This means a lot ... I spent a lot of time with the PGA of America during the Ryder Cup. I got to know a lot of people. We spent basically three years, two-and-a-half years, because of the COVID issue, and I developed a lot of friendships.”
Sunday at Fields Ranch East, Stricker was charged with trying to hold off Harrington first in regulation (Harrington birdied 18 with two putts to force extra holes, reaching the green with an 8-iron) and then in a playoff, where this time, a par was good enough for Stricker.
The playoff was nothing short of wild. Harrington hit first on the tee, belting a driver that finished inside the penalty area, in high, dry grass right of the fairway. He chose not to take a drop, believing he could advance the ball the 80 yards he needed to carry it to the next segment of fairway. But he “knifed” the shot. It squirted almost dead right and was gone.
Stricker had laid up in two. Harrington still had 272 yards to the hole, now hitting four. He ripped a 5-wood that pitched on the left side of the green and trickled to 15 feet, a sensational recovery. Stricker at first was unsure that Harrington even had a chance to tie him with a 5 at 18. Harrington’s putt to tie broke across the front of the hole and stayed out. The trophy was Stricker’s.
“If I hole the putt,” Harrington said afterward, “we could say it was one of the best shots I ever hit. The fact that I didn't hole the putt? We'll forget about it. Golf is cruel.”
Harrington smiled after he said it. It had been a good week, getting to 18-under par on a golf course that really tested players. Stricker credited solid course management for his victory, and sticking to a game plan that at times was very conservative. A player can do that with a world-class wedge game. Only four players in the field (former PGA champion Y.E. Yang being the fourth) reached double-digits below par.
The race for Low Club Professional finished in a tie. Mark Brown (Hobe Sound, Florida) had a lead coming down the stretch but double-bogeyed his final hole, shooting 76, finishing at 6-over 294. Already in the clubhouse on that score was Tim Weinhart (Canton, Georgia), who shot 74 in the final round. Weinhart had given himself a chance by holing a pitch for birdie at the par-4 16th.
Weinhart said he learned the news while in the middle of a double-double at an In-N-Out Burger down the street. Knowing the high quality of Brown’s game, Weinhart, who started the week as an alternate, said he was shocked.
"I didn't think there was any chance," Weinhart said.
This time a year ago, Stricker was recovering from a mysterious illness that robbed him of his strength, and caused him to drop 25 pounds off his slender frame. And last May, he missed the Senior PGA in Michigan after testing positive for the coronavirus. There is no doubt he is back in a large, large way, and the man to beat among the senior set. Stricker is 2-for-2 in majors this season, having won the Regions Tradition in Alabama a few weeks back. He is on a roll. In 13 starts this season, Stricker has won three times and finished no worse than T-8.
“I will have to say, like Steve is probably the toughest guy you could ever play on a Sunday,” Harrington said. “He has to have the best wedge game in the world. He's a fabulous putter, he's a fabulous chipper, but his wedge play like at the first 14 holes was just spectacular ... It was getting to the stage where it looked like he would hole a wedge.”
With Harrington stalled in the middle of the round, a wedge to tight range set up Stricker’s go-ahead birdie at the par-4 11th, and two holes later, on the difficult, 220-yard 13th, he missed the green right and pitched in for 2. That was like stealing.
Harrington did all he could to hang in there, but his errant drive at 18 in the playoff was costly, and Stricker was just steadier. Stricker won with his youngest daughter, Izzi, on the bag for the first time. This was one to be celebrated.
The victory earned Stricker $630,000 and gets Stricker into next year’s PGA Championship. Minutes after winning, that already had crossed his mind.
“Where is it at next year? Is it Valhalla?” Stricker asked, receiving confirmation he was correct. “Okay, so I got that on my calendar already.”
For Steve Stricker, that’s always his favorite tournament: The next one.