Stricker receives $1 million break

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Not even eligible for Match Play Championship three weeks ago, Steve Stricker completed an unlikely journey with a gutsy performance Sunday to defeat Pierre Fulke of Sweden and win the $1 million prize.

Stricker, No. 90 in the world ranking and the 55th seed in a 64-man field missing Tiger Woods and a slew of other top names, never trailed in the 36-hole match and survived a grueling day at Metropolitan Golf Club when Fulke's putter betrayed him.

Stricker closed out the match on the 35th hole, 2 and 1, when the 29-year-old Swede failed to save par from the bunker. It was Stricker's first victory in four years, and the $1 million prize might be enough to get him into the Masters.

Stricker hugged his caddie, a buddy from Wisconsin, and choked back tears as he realized how far he had come in one lucrative week.

''I just figured I would win a couple of matches and get ready for the West Coast,'' Stricker said. ''But lo and behold, I started feeling good about my game. I was scrambling really well, and my attitude and thinking was pretty sharp.''

As he talked about his four-year victory drought, Stricker started crying.

''Excuse me ... this means a lot,'' he said. ''It's just beyond my expectations.''

The field was the weakest of the seven official World Golf Championship events to date, as Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and top Europeans like Colin Montgomerie decided against a long trip to Australia so close to the holidays. Stricker could not afford to skip out on a chance to win $1 million.

He became the lowest seed to win the Accenture Match Play Championship in the three-year history of the event, but so fickle is the format that the highest seed to ever win was Darren Clarke last year at No. 19. Even if the top stars were at Metropolitan, Stricker still might have walked off a winner. He putted as well as Woods did in winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, making 13 of 18 putts from between 4 and 20 feet to either win or -- in many cases -- halve the hole.

Fulke, who won $500,000 and all but clinched a spot on the Ryder Cup team for Europe, likely will think back on all the chances he squandered over the final 18 holes.

Two-down to start the second 18, he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the sixth with a chance to trim the lead. The Swede, one of the top putters on the European tour, missed another 4-foot birdie try on the 12th that would have squared the match. He also missed a 12-foot putt on the 14th as Stricker hung on for dear life.

Stricker, who made a 20-foot par putt on the 11th to protect his lead, saved par from the bunker on the 16th with a slick, hard-breaking 4-foot putt.

After so many chances, Fulke finally crumbled when he could least afford it, pulling a 4-iron into the bunker and missing the 15-foot putt.

Stricker took the lead in the morning round on the 15th hole when Fulke ran into bunker problems, and the 33-year-old from Wisconsin never trailed again.

For the week, he played 118 holes over six matches and trailed for only nine holes, a remarkable display.

Even more remarkable was that Stricker had not played on the PGA Tour since missing the cut in the Canadian Open, which took place the second week of the NFL season. He had not made a cut since July 16 in his hometown Greater Milwaukee Open.

In the consolation match, Toru Taniguchi won 4 and 3 against a lethargic Ernie Els to earn $400,000 for third place, and world ranking points that could go a long way toward the Japanese player getting into the Masters.

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