By John Reger
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Steve Stricker overcame an early stumble and a late charge from Britain's Luke Donald to win the Northern Trust Open Sunday and wrest the world number two ranking from fellow American Phil Mickelson.
Stricker, who blew chances to win last year's tournament when he bogeyed his last hole to go into a losing playoff against Mickelson, shot a one-under 70 for a 16-under total of 268 to finish two strokes above Donald.
The win, Stricker's eighth tour victory, gave the American a $1.15 million winner's check and a chance to shoot for the top ranking in the absence of Tiger Woods, who has taken an indefinite break from the tour in the wake of revelations about his marital infidelities.
"But I put a lot of hard work into it. It just means a lot."
Stricker had to return to the course early Sunday to finish his third round which had been suspended due to bad light. He had a five-stroke lead with four holes remaining and extended it to six going into the final round.
Although the lead looked insurmountable, Stricker stumbled early on and Donald, who has posted top 10 finishes in the past two years here, took advantage.
The Briton two-putted from 28 feet for birdie on the par five first hole and then made an 11-footer on the third to cut the lead to four.
Stricker missed a five-foot putt to save par on the following hole and Donald reduced the lead to two when he made a six-foot birdie on the fifth.
Stricker rallied, however, with a run of birdies starting on the eighth. He drained a nine-foot birdie on the ninth then extended his lead to three after a 12-foot birdie on the 11th.
Dustin Johnson, who finished a stroke behind Donald with fellow American J.B. Holmes, also threatened with a run of four birdies in five holes but Stricker held on for victory.
The American missed a gettable birdie on the 17th last year before his final hole meltdown led to a galling loss to Mickelson.
"You put them in your memory bank, I guess," he said. "You look back at them and make sure that you try not to do the same things."
Having struggled off the tee and on the fairway, Stricker's putting and short game saved him when he appeared on the verge of being overhauled. The American bogeyed the 12th, but grinded out six consecutive pars to close out the win.
He had 104 putts to finish first for the tournament and tied for first in sand saves.
"I knew some good things were happening throughout the week," Stricker said.
"I didn't know I was going to win the tournament, but some kind of magical things were happening along the way."
(Editing by John Mehaffey/Ian Ransom)