Stricker strikes gold with Match Play title

Associated Press
Tuesday, January 9

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Steve Stricker needed a lot of help to win the Match Play Championship, but not from anyone he played.

What it means
The Match Play Championship is easily the biggest win of Steve Stricker's career, and it could be one to unleash the potential so many saw five years ago when he won twice on the PGA Tour.

For practical matters, the victory assures Stricker of a job for the next three years with a full exemption. That's important since his struggles in 2000 left him 113th on the money list and in danger of a return to Q-School.

The win also gives him an opportunity to get into The Masters, if he can maintain one of the top two spots on the money list for nine weeks. It also puts him into next year's Mercedes Championship and well on his way to a berth in the Tour Championship in October.

It also means a huge confidence boost for a player who missed 10 cuts in 21 events last year and hadn't made a cut since July. He began 2000 by shooting par or better in 13 or his first 14 rounds, but only did it 16 times the rest of the year.

His victory also gives him the early lead on the 2001 money list, marking the first time since the last week of January last year that Tiger Woods has not been on top.

It also means the man who played the best for a single day ended up champion. In the third round, Stricker was 9-under over 13 holes during a 6-and-5 drubbing of Justin Leonard. That gave him confidence to grind out victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals when his game wasn't as sharp.

For Pierre Fulke, his performance virtually assures a spot on the European Ryder Cup team in September and gives him a big jump in the race for the Order of Merit. With the exception of majors and two other WGC events, no other European Tour events come close to purse size.

-- Greg Robertson
ESPN Golf Online

Three days before Christmas, Stricker was No. 90 in the World Rankings and preparing to start his season next week in Tucson at a second-tier PGA Tour event. He wound up in Australia for a $5 million World Golf Championship event when Tiger Woods, David Duval and three dozen other top players decided against a trip halfway around the world.

"I was lucky to get in," he said.

Skill took over when the tournament started.

After six matches over five grueling days at Metropolitan Golf Club and a 72-hole weekend with stakes that grew higher with every round, Stricker had a headstart on the new season and a jumpstart to his career.

With a putting performance equal to Woods, Stricker never trailed in his 36-hole final against Pierre Fulke and held on for a 2-and-1 victory. He earned $1 million, nearly as much as he made the past two years combined.

All of which begs one question -- could he have won against the best?

"They all had the opportunity to commit and come over, and they didn't," Stricker said. "That's all I care about it. It's a big win, it's my biggest win and it gets me going in the right direction. They can say whatever they want, because I feel like I deserved it."

He played 118 holes this week and was behind on only nine of them. And when the pressure reached its peak Sunday, the 33-year-old from Wisconsin closed with seven pars on a course that was dry, fast and as difficult as at any major championship.

Two of those pars came from the treacherous bunkers of Metropolitan, followed by downhill putts that broke hard and fast.

"At times I didn't hit the greatest," Stricker said. "I just like the way I gutted it out."

Stricker was the 55th seed, the highest to win the Accenture Match Play Championship in the three years it has been played. That's nothing new. Only one top-10 seed has ever reached the finals (Woods) and Darren Clarke at No. 19 is the lowest seed to win.

Stricker arrived a week ago Sunday, expecting to see kangaroos hopping about and not really sure what his game would produce.

"I just figured I would win a couple of matches and get ready for the West Coast," he said.

Instead, he mowed down every opponent and found motivation from each of them. It wasn't hard to find something inspiring about his 36-hole final against Fulke, a 29-year-old Swede.

After eliminating No. 1 seed Ernie Els in the semifinals, Fulke talked about how a victory would enable him to play on the PGA Tour, the sooner the better.

"I looked at today's match like the key match, beating Ernie," Fulke said Saturday night, after the semifinals

Fulke hit into eight greenside bunkers over the first 18 holes and struggled to save par, falling 2-down in the morning. Stricker never let him back up.

Stricker faced 18 putts with the hole on the line and made 14 of them Sunday, including a 20-footer for par on the 11th that kept his lead at 1-up. Fulke twice missed 4-foot birdie putts and missed another one from 12 feet.

"I just couldn't buy a putt, not even with $1 million," Fulke said.

 Pierre Fulke
Pierre Fulke found plenty of trouble on the back nine during the morning round.

He had to settle for $500,000, the biggest check in his career.

In the consolation match, Toru Taniguchi of Japan easily defeated an uninspired Els, 4 and 3, which earned him $400,000 and valuable world ranking points that will go a long way toward getting into The Masters.

For Stricker, this is a nice comeback for a player who only five years ago was considered a rising star after two victories in 1996.

With success came riches, and with riches came trouble.

He got rid of his Peerless irons to sign a lucrative deal with Taylor Made, and the new equipment made him blink. A switch to Ping didn't help, and now Stricker has no club deal and likes it that way.

In his bag this week were clubs made by Callaway, Cobra, Ping, Titleist and Odyssey. Worth noting is that the driver (Callaway Big Bertha, a dinosaur in today's high-tech market) and the putter (Odyssey) were the same ones he used in 1996.

And for five days, it looked like the same Stricker.

"I dug down deep a couple of times and really executed some shots that I really needed," he said. "And I kept that killer instinct."

That could carry him a long way this year, and a long way from where he was.