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Late entry pays $1-million for Stricker in Match Play

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2001

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

Three days before Christmas, Stricker was No. 90 in the World Ranking and preparing to start his season this 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 two 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 every round, Stricker got a head start on the new season.

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."

He played 118 holes and was behind on only nine. When the pressure reached its peak Sunday, the 33-year-old from Wisconsin closed with seven pars on a dry, fast course. Two of those pars came from the treacherous bunkers, 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 Match Play Championship in its three years. That's nothing new. Only one top-10 seed has ever reached the final (Woods), and Darren Clarke at No. 19 is the lowest seed to win.

Stricker arrived a week ago Sunday 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. It wasn't hard to find something inspiring about his 36-hole final against Fulke, a 29-year-old Swede who has locked up a spot on the Ryder Cup team.

After beating No. 1 seed Ernie Els in the semifinals, Fulke talked about how a win would enable him to play on the PGA Tour. But he hit into eight green-side bunkers in Sunday's first 18, 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, including a 20-footer for par on the 11th that kept his lead at 1-up. Fulke twice missed 4-foot birdie putts and another from 12 feet.

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

In the consolation match, Toru Taniguchi of Japan easily defeated an uninspired Els 4 and 3.

NEW YEAR'S INVITATIONAL: After finishing third in 1999 and second in 2000, Akio Sadakata figured this would be his turn for a title.

With four rounds in the 60s at St. Petersburg Country Club, he left no doubt for the other 127 golfers in the field. The Chamberlain grad and 1999 Florida Amateur champion turned in his best round Sunday, firing 66 for 271 to win the 75th annual tournament by eight shots. He began the final round with a four-shot cushion and erased any suspense with four birdies in the first six holes.

"I really deserved to win this year, and it came through," Sadakata said. "I just felt good on the golf course."

Sadakata, who has improved every year for five years in the Invitational (he finished 11th and seventh his first two years), shot 69, 67 and 69.

Duke's Paul Tucker finished second with 70-279, and Bradenton 17-year-old Chan Song Wongluekiet was third with 72-281.

In the senior division, Tampa's Don Lucas shot the second-best round of the day to win with 68-293. Spencer Gaylord of St. Petersburg finished second with 76-299.

- Staff writer John Schwarb contributed to this report.

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