SILVIS, Ill. (AP) — Steve Stricker sank a 25-foot putt from off the 18th green Sunday to win the John Deere Classic for the third straight year and put himself in one of golf's most select groups.
The putt capped a roller coaster afternoon for Stricker, who led by five strokes when he made the turn, fell behind rookie Kyle Stanley by two shots on the back nine, then birdied the final two holes to close with a 2-under 69.
"It was an unbelievable week and an unbelievable finish," Stricker said. "I still can't believe I'm sitting here."
Stricker became just the 10th golfer since World War II to win a tournament three straight times. He finished at 22-under 262 to beat Stanley by one stroke.
Matt McQuillan, who had missed the cut in his previous 10 tournaments, shot a 64 to tie Zach Johnson (65) for third at 17 under. Charles Howell III (64) and Chez Reavie (72) were another stroke back.
Stanley kept the lead by salvaging par on 17 after sending his tee shot into a grove of trees, but he missed a 9-foot par putt on 18 to open the door for Stricker, who took advantage.
Stricker had fallen two back with bogeys on 15 and 16 that seemingly ended his hopes of a threepeat.
"I really did feel like the momentum was gone for a while," he said. "Those holes kind of derailed me there."
But he regrouped quickly. Stricker knocked in a 15-foot putt for birdie on 17 to cut Stanley's lead to one stroke, then made what turned out to be a tournament-saving shot from a bunker on the left side of the fairway.
Standing with his left foot in the bunker and his right foot on the lip, Stricker hit the ball solidly and left it on the fringe of the green behind the pin, drawing a huge roar from the crowd.
The next roar was even louder. Using his putter, Stricker sent the ball toward the cup and watched it curl in from the left side. The 44-year-old from Madison, Wis., a crowd favorite at this tournament, backed away as the ball neared the hole, then raised his arms and pumped his fist to celebrate the moment.
"It's weird," Stricker said. "When I get into a situation where I have to make a putt, I feel like my nerves kind of go away and I focus extremely hard on trying to make that putt. And that's kind of like the little zone I got into on 17 and 18, I guess."
With the victory, Stricker joined a small but noteworthy group of golfers who have won a tournament three year running. The list reads like a Who's Who's of the game and includes Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan and Johnny Miller.
Woods has done it six times and Palmer twice.
"I kept telling myself that it's not a big deal and it really wasn't — until today," Stricker said. "That back nine trying to win, it's just really hard. I don't know any other way to say it. It's extremely hard to put it away.
"When you watch guys like Tiger put away all those tournaments, anybody who's put it away down the stretch, it's a difficult thing to do. But I'm happy to come out on top. I made a couple of putts when I had to."
Woods also is one of just four golfers who has won a tournament four straight years. The way Stricker has mastered the TPC Deere Run course, you can't discount his chances of joining that group, too.
Stricker finished 26 under at last year's tournament and was 20 under in his 2009 victory.
So, was he ready talk about four in a row.
"No," Stricker said with a smile.
Stanley, 23, claimed a nice consolation prize, earning the spot in the British Open that goes to the highest finisher in this tournament who's not already qualified. But if it hadn't been for Stricker's late heroics, Stanley would have had his first victory on the tour.
"I'm very excited to go over there," said Stanley, whose best finish had been a tie for 12th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March. "But I'm still trying to calm down from that round."
Stanley trailed by five strokes after Stricker buried a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 9. But showing the poise of a tour veteran, he birdied five of the first six holes on the back nine to zoom into the lead, making a 26-foot birdie putt on 13, an 18-footer on 14 and a 36-footer on 15 to go up by a stroke.
When Stricker made his two bogeys, Stanley suddenly led by two.
"I just kept giving myself good looks and putts that I did in practice rounds and putts that I knew what they were going to do," he said. "I just kept trying to make birdies and give myself opportunities."
Stanley made a nice par save on 17 after driving into a grove of trees, then got into trouble on 18 when he went from the rough to a greenside bunker. He was in good position to salvage par again when he chipped up to 9 feet, but he missed the putt and took bogey, giving Stricker the opportunity he needed.
Stricker won for the second time this year and 11th time in his career, with eight of those victories coming after he turned 40. He won the Memorial a month ago and now has multiple wins in three consecutive years.
Only four others have done that since 2000: Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.