Stricker finds his game Down Under

Associated Press
Tuesday, January 9

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The shock at getting into the Match Play Championship didn't last long for Steve Stricker.

After a quiet practice round on New Year's Eve at Metropolitan Golf Club, Stricker sounded like a man who was determined to prove he belonged, even as the 26th alternate in a $5 million World Golf Championship missing so many stars.

 Steve Stricker
His first victory in five years brought tears of joy to Steve Stricker.
"I know somewhere in there," he said, tapping his chest, "that I'm capable of winning."

After making just about every putt that mattered, after shedding a few tears and hoisting the Walter Hagen Cup, there was little room for argument.

One week after he arrived, Stricker had returned.

A rising star five years ago when he won twice on the PGA Tour, the 33-year-old from Wisconsin showed his mettle in match play with a 2-and-1 victory over Pierre Fulke to claim the $1 million prize.

"It was a bonus for me to get into the tournament," he said. "I was the underdog in every match. So, I really felt like I had nothing to lose. I just went out there and tried to give it my all. Everything fell into place."

Every putt fell, that's for sure.

Eighteen times during the 35 holes he had to play Sunday, he faced a putt that decided the outcome of the hole. He made 14 of them, a performance that eventually caused Fulke to drop his head and wonder if Tiger Woods wasn't really at Metropolitan in disguise.

Woods wasn't there. And Stricker is no Woods.

Even after his victory in the first round over Padraig Harrington, Stricker said when he gets it going, he could compete with "anybody here."

"This week," he added quickly. "Not Tiger."

Even Woods might have been hard-pressed to stop Stricker, who trailed in only nine of the 118 holes he played this week.

But Stricker knows there will be doubters.

Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and the top players from Europe didn't bother to come to the Match Play Championship, a great tournament on a great course at a miserable time of the year.

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."

When the pressure reached its peak Sunday, he closed with seven pars on a course that was dry, fast and as difficult as any major championship course. 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 it 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.

The tournament rarely goes according to plan, and this week was no exception.

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 in his way 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 who already has locked up a spot on the Ryder Cup team.

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 during 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 had his chances, but 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.

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

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.

Stricker could get to Augusta National, too, if he is in the top three on the PGA Tour money list at the end of Doral. A $1 million start might be enough, but Stricker doesn't want to stop there.

"Winning here means a lot," he said. "But deep down, I realize I still need to work hard."