Lessons From Down Under

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Once again the game has risen above its critics. The much-maligned WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championship this past weekend in Melbourne, Australia, proved to be entertaining, competitive and even informative - despite the absence of many of the world's top-ranked players.
 
So, what did we learn this week?
 
Well, first of all we learned that there are many talented players outside of the United States and Europe. For years we've known of the Ozaki brothers - Jumbo, Jet and Joe. A couple of years ago we were introduced to their Japanese compatriot, the affable Shigeki Maruyama. Late 2000 we discovered Hidemichi Tanaka, who challenged for the season-ending WGC-American Express Championship before tying for 11th. Now we've been made aware of yet another gifted Japanese golfer - Toru Taniguchi.
 
Taniguchi not only outshined his more famous countryman, Maruyama, defeating him in the quarterfinals, he also bettered third-seeded Vijay Singh along the way. For the week, Taniguchi earned a career-best $400,000, or roughly 47 million yen.
 
We also know there's more to the Australian golf scene than just Norman, Parry, Appleby and Allenby. There's also Nick O'Hern, a 29-year-old lefty, whose mechanical swing and meticulous manner carried him past an ailing Hal Sutton and into the quarterfinals.
 
Speaking of Sutton, we also learned this week that the burly Louisianan's every bit as tough as his reputation would have you believe. Despite injuring his back prior to arriving in Australia, Sutton honored his commitment and fought through the apparent pain to challenge a game O'Hern, before falling in 21 holes.
 
In terms of reputation, Ernie Els has always been known for his laid-back manner. The Big Easy, nicknamed for his attributes as well as his attitude, proved in his third-round match against Jean Van de Velde that he isn't without emotion.
 
In an exhaustive and tightly contest match, Els rolled in a match-saving birdie putt at the 18th hole, complete with fist pump and a meaningful glare directed toward his opponent. One hole later he emphatically finished the Frenchman. Of course, as is his nature, Els downplayed the incident post-match.
 
We've also learned that the beauty that is the Metropolitan Golf Club is quite deceptive. Sans water, only wind and sand protect the luscious layout, requiring a player to display patience and precision. Should he fail to master either of the two, bogeys abound. Though not as treacherous to the sense as are the pot bunkers encompassing St. Andrews, the traps at Metropolitan proved to be equally as perilous.
 
This week taught us how minute the line is between good and great professionals. How equally talented players are throughout the world.
 
Sixty-four matches were contested this week, including the consolation match. Of those 64, the lower-seeded player won 33. In addition, 10 matches went into extra holes; that's three more than the previous two years combined.
 
We know Pierre Fulke is one of the hottest golfers on the planet the last six months. After missing the first five months of the 2000 season due to a disc problem in his back, Fulke captured the Scottish PGA in August and the Volvo Masters in November. He now adds a half-million dollars to his bank account, which not only increases his position in the tax bracket, but also guarantees him a spot on the 2001 European Ryder Cup team.
 
We learned that life offers opportunities, and it's up for us to take advantage of them. Steve Stricker did that this past week. Ranked 90th in the world, Stricker made the daylong trip to Australia only after 26 higher-ranked players withdrew.
 
Stricker arrived in Melbourne just trying to 'win a couple of matches' and take it from there. But one win turned to two, and then three and four. By Sunday afternoon, Stricker had six victories under his belt, a million dollars in his pocket and enough confidence to carry him through the upcoming season.
 
After winning the Kemper and Western Opens in 1996, the 33-year-old Stricker fell on difficult times, slipping to 130th on the money list the following year, narrowly missing out on a major championship in '98; and in his words: 'Fall(ing) off the golf map,' the past two years.
 
What Stricker lacked in confidence he more than made up for in self-doubt. A devoted father and husband, he questioned the Tour life. He questioned his place in the game.
 
More than anything, this week has taught us that perseverance pays, and in this case it pays greatly. And every now and again, even nice guys finish first.
 
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