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Stricker Strikes Gold in Australia

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Two weeks ago Steve Stricker was in Jacksonville, Fla., honing his game for the upcoming 2001 season. At 90th on the Official World Golf Ranking, he wasn't eligible for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Melbourne, Australia, which is on offer to the top 64 players in the world. Several withdrawals later however, he found himself in the field. He made the most of his opportunity.
 
Stricker completed an improbable run Sunday at the Metropolitan Golf Club, defeating Sweden's Pierre Fulke 2-and-1 in the 36-hole final, thus capturing the first official event of the season, as well as the $1-million first-place prize.
 
Seeded 55th, Stricker outlasted 21st-seeded Fulke in a competitive, if not compelling, final. The Wisconsin native never trailed in the match, winning the first hole and holding on from there.
 
For Stricker, this is his first PGA Tour victory since a two-win season in 1996.
 
'This means a lot,' said a very emotional Stricker, 'beyond my expectations. It gets me going where I belong to be.'
 
All-square through 14 holes, Stricker won the 15th, 16th and 17th holes before losing the 18th to a Fulke birdie to take a 2-up advantage into the afternoon 18.
 
The two men halved the first six holes following an hour-long break, and then swapped winning ways at the 7th and 8th holes.
 
Stricker maintained his 2-up lead through 27 holes, until a three-putt bogey cut Fulke's deficit in half.
 
Putting, however, was instrumental to Stricker's success on Sunday and equally responsible for Fulke's demise.
 
Down the stretch Fulke missed numerous opportunities to pull all-square, continuing a trend that began in the morning 18.
 
Following a 20-foot par save by Stricker to halve the 29th hole (par-3 11th) and remain 1-up, Fulke missed from four feet to win the 30th.
 
The Swede, who's one of the top putters on the European Tour, then proceeded to miss a pair of 20-foot birdie attempts at the 31st and 32nd holes, either of which would have evened the match.
 
Upon halving the 33rd hole, Stricker stuck a dagger in Fulke's heart at the 34th hole, the par-4 16th. Stricker played an incredible bunker shot to four feet, which he then confidently sank to remain 1-up with two holes to play.
 
At the 35th hole (par-4 17th), Fulke left his approach shot into the left-hand bunker, where he could only advance his ball 15 feet right of the hole. Stricker two-putted from 35 feet to ensure par, and then watched as Fulke's attempt to continue the match slid by the cup.
 
'I just figured I would win a couple of matches and get ready for the West Coast,' Stricker said. 'But low and behold, I started feeling good about my game. I was scrambling really well, and my attitude and thinking was pretty sharp.'
 
Fulke was not left without. The 29-year-old was awarded $500,000 for his efforts, thus all but guaranteeing him a spot on the 2001 European Ryder Cup team.
 
In the consolation match, Toru Taniguchi defeated top-seeded Ernie Els 4-and-3. The 30th seed won $400,000, while the seemingly apathetic Els earned $300K.
 
Stricker will next play in the upcoming Touchstone Energy Tucson Open, where his wife Nicki will once again caddie for him.
 
This is Stricker's third career PGA Tour title, adding it to the pair he won in '96 at the Kemper and Western Opens. The $1-million paycheck is more than double what he won in all of last season.