Stricker ends 6 1/2 year drought with No. 1 finish in tournament

HARRISON, N.Y. &#8212 What looked like more heartache for Steve Stricker turned into the sweetest victory of his career.

After going 6 1/2 years and 146 tournaments without winning, Stricker birdied four of his last five holes Sunday at The Barclays for a stunning turnaround that gave him a 2-under 69 and a two-shot victory over K.J. Choi.

“It was hard, but it was fun,” Stricker said, his voice choking as tears streamed down the side of his face. “I never knew if I was going to win again.”

It sure wasn’t easy. Not with 10 players separated by three shots. And not with Choi holing two birdie putts that were a combined 95 feet, making it look as if he were destined to win.

Stricker, who already let four chances of winning slip away this year, refused to buckle.

And when his final birdie from 8 feet dropped into the cup, he raised his arms and hugged his caddie, Tom Matthews, who first caddied for Stricker when he won the 2001 Match Play Championship in Australia.

Along with the fourth victory of his career, Stricker moved to the top of the FedEx Cup standings with 2,050-point lead over Choi, who closed with a 70. Rory Sabbatini, who had a share of the lead at the turn, closed with a 68 to finish a stroke back and moved up to No. 3 in the playoff race.

The next stop is the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, which starts Friday. There are three tournaments remaining before someone captures the $10 million deferred bonus, but all Stricker cared about was hoisting another trophy.

His last victory on U.S. soil came 11 years ago at the Western Open, when he was considered one of the bright young American players. But his game slowly began to slide until he lost his PGA Tour card two years ago.

Choi was going after his third victory of the year, and everything was falling his way. He took a share of the lead with a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 12, dropping his putter in surprise, then took the lead again with a 50-foot birdie putt on the 15th.

Stricker hung his head, but not for long. He answered with a 12-foot birdie on the par-3 16th to regain a share of the lead, then hit wedge that stopped 4 feet from the cup for birdie on the 17th that gave him a one-shot margin. Choi hit his approach left of the par-5 18th green and could chip no closer than 15 feet, from which he made par.

Stricker finished at 16-under 268 and earned $1.26 million.

Though Choi and the other top finishers put up a good show, the final act belonged to Stricker.

He last played this tournament in 1996, tying for 60th, and thought so little of the place that he told his wife to “take a picture because we’re not coming back.” The best picture of all was Stricker posing with a trophy.