Fab Fill-in Steve Stricker's career is back on track after a win in the star-challenged World Match Play

January 15, 2001

He didn't belong. Remember that, because now that Steve Stricker
is again a factor in the golf world, it will be easy to forget
he sneaked into last week's Accenture Match Play Championship in
Melbourne, Australia, with an ordinary World Ranking of 90th.
Designed as a glitzy showcase for golf's 64 best players, the
third edition of the $5 million Match Play was held too early in
the year and too far from home to attract many of the sated
superstars. Their absence opened up the field to Stricker and a
number of other down-on-their-luck dreamers.

If these stand-ins lacked star power, they made up for it with
passion. Stricker, a Wisconsin native, spent 17 days in Florida
during December tuning up his game to take advantage of this
chance in the sun, and, having left his wife and baby daughter
behind, he spent a lonely New Year's Eve in Melbourne alone with
his thoughts. Stricker's resolution? To pretend it was 1996, when
he was a 29-year-old golden boy who won two Tour events, finished
fourth on the money list and went 5-0 to lead the U.S. to victory
at the Dunhill Cup.

In the four seasons that followed, Stricker was worse than
winless: he was rendered all but obsolete. "I've kind of slipped
off the face of the golf world," he said last week at
Metropolitan Golf Club. "I want to start playing well again. I
know I have that good player inside of me somewhere." On Sunday
evening, following a taut 2-and-1 victory over Sweden's Pierre
Fulke in the 36-hole final, Stricker had successfully traveled
back to the future, zooming from the tournament's waiting list
to its $1 million first prize on the strength of his old
hallmarks--a bulletproof short game and bare-knuckled Big Ten
toughness.

Six of the top seven players in the World Ranking were AWOL at
the Match Play, but the way Stricker played, they were hardly
missed. It's a sure bet that none of the multimillionaire
absentees would have cried like a baby after winning, as Stricker
did during the trophy ceremony on Metropolitan's 17th green.
These were joyful tears, but they also had a cleansing effect,
confirming the purity of Stricker's triumph.

He arrived in Melbourne having declined all overtures for a club
contract, forgoing the guaranteed money in hopes of regaining his
old form. The 14 sticks Stricker used were a mishmash of five
brands, including the trusty Ping putter and Callaway driver that
he used throughout '96, both of which he was compelled to
shelve--with disastrous results--when he signed lucrative
endorsement deals at the end of that season. It is a further
measure of Stricker's rekindled dedication that he never
hesitated to travel Down Under, even though he's a noted homebody
who limits himself to 20 tournaments a year. "I knew the field
was going to be wide open," Stricker said, "and that it was a
great chance to get off to a fast start."

In fact, to help fill out the draw, it was necessary to include
the 103rd-ranked player, Aussie unknown Nick O'Hern, who six days
before the tournament was awakened at midnight by a call from
Tour headquarters in Florida. O'Hern was so groggy that the next
morning he had no recollection of having received the invitation.
"I got up and couldn't understand why my wife was bouncing off
the walls," he says.

Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Ernie Els, the only real marquee player in
the field, caused some consternation by blowing into town the
night before the tournament. Els hadn't wanted to miss his usual
New Year's bash in South Africa, and he described his
pretournament preparation as "barbecuing crayfish and drinking a
couple of beers." That was apparently enough to fuel an easy
3-and-2 first-round victory over Greg Kraft, but Els's match was
one of the few boring ones during an opening day that saw six
matches go to sudden death and another four end on the 18th hole.

The most riveting duel was O'Hern's victory on the 21st hole over
a gallant Hal Sutton, the tournament's second seed, who was so
debilitated by back pain he could barely bend over to tee up his
ball. Stricker sprang the day's other upset, bouncing Irish
stalwart Padraig Harrington, the 10th seed. "I don't think it's
an upset," a fired-up Stricker said after his 2-and-1 win. "I
still feel as if I'm a good enough player to beat anybody if I
get my game going."

The action, highlighted by a fearless Japanese twosome, reached a
fever pitch during last Thursday's second round. Toru Taniguchi,
a diminutive 32-year-old playing his first event outside Asia,
pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament when he stunned
Vijay Singh, the third seed. Taniguchi finished the front-nine
birdie-par-eagle-birdie to make the turn 4 up and held on for a
one-up win. His mentor, Shigeki Maruyama, turned in an equally
outrageous performance. Four down to Bob May after 12 holes,
Maruyama sank a 40-foot birdie putt to win the 17th, then drained
a 70-footer for birdie to take the 18th and force sudden death.
Maruyama put away a punch-drunk May on the 22nd hole.

Stricker began producing some pyrotechnics of his own during
Friday's Sweet 16. Poor Justin Leonard played the first 13 holes
in two under par--and lost 6 and 5, as Stricker went nine under
over the same span, making a pair of eagles and needing,
unofficially, only 14 putts. Fulke had a much tougher time with
Michael Campbell, the fifth seed. They combined for an eagle and
13 birdies, the last of which came at the 18th hole when Fulke
rolled in a 30-footer with 10 feet of break to steal a one-up
victory. This came a day after Fulke had rammed in a 20-footer at
the last to force a playoff with Glen Day, who succumbed on the
20th hole.

Fulke's clutch play was in keeping with his billing as one of
Europe's rising stars, but, like Stricker's, his ride to the top
has been bumpy. After six years of unfulfilled promise, Fulke,
29, finally broke through in September 1999 with a win at the
Trophee Lancome in Paris. However, within weeks his year was
aborted by a mysterious pain in his right arm and shoulder. Not
until the spring of 2000 was the malady--pinched lumbar
nerves--identified and treated.

Fulke returned to action last June and began tearing up the
European tour, winning the Scottish PGA Championship in August
and the tour's season-ending Volvo Masters. At the latter Fulke
laced a five-wood through a howling wind at the 70th hole to set
up the eagle that downed Darren Clarke, a heroic blow that the
European tour honored as its shot of the year. Fulke has Jim
Furyk's game (short--even with an ERC driver--and straight off the
tee, brilliant on and around the greens) and Fuzzy Zoeller's
insouciance. Fulke all but whistles while he works, a helpful
attitude given the strain of the Match Play weekend.

If the tournament's wild first three days are about fast and
furious action, the final two (back-to-back 18-hole matches on
Saturday, followed by a 36-hole death march on Sunday) are a
grind for survival, with birdie flurries giving way to the glory
of the ugly par. Stricker, whose driving is erratic even at the
best of times, seemed to play every hole out of the heather in
his Saturday-morning Elite Eight match against O'Hern, who as the
last Aussie left in the draw was being fitted for a glass
Foot-Joy. Two down after five holes, Stricker battled back to
take O'Hern to sudden death, and then, on the 19th hole with
O'Hern stiff for a sure birdie, Stricker coolly rolled in a
20-footer for a halve--"the biggest putt of the tournament," he
said. On the next hole Stricker nearly knocked down the flagstick
with his approach, and the match ended with a concession. On the
other side of the draw Fulke outlasted Brad Faxon (World Ranking:
76) in 19 holes.

Birdies were in short supply on Saturday afternoon. Fulke's
2-and-1 defeat of Els would rate as a major upset, except the
world No. 2 played such uninspired golf that he admitted, "It
didn't take much to beat me, that's for sure." Stricker found a
similarly lackluster opponent in Taniguchi, who, drained from his
emotional quarterfinal victory over Maruyama, didn't put up much
of a fight in a 2-and-1 loss. Stricker's confidence was clearly
cresting. "I've learned a lot about myself the last couple of
days," he said on Saturday night. "I've dug down deep when I've
had to."

The final match began with both players chugging along without
distinction. All square through 14 holes, Fulke strung together
three straight bogeys to go three down and, during the afternoon
18, repeatedly blew opportunities to cut into the deficit.
Stricker, clinging to the lead like a terrier locked on to the
leg of a postman, made an amazing sand save at the 34th hole to
stay one up, then stepped to the tee of Metro's 17th hole--a long,
narrow, sharply doglegged par-4--and ripped a fearless drive
around the corner, some 50 yards past Fulke. "One of my goals
this year is to not back off, no matter the situation," Stricker
said. When Fulke couldn't get up and down from the front bunker,
Stricker had the most important win of his career.

Afterward he was reminded that back in 1996 his name often came
up in conversations about golf's best young players, along with
the names of contemporaries like Els, Furyk and David Duval. "It
hurts, but I deserved to disappear from that list," said
Stricker, who finished 64th and 113th, respectively, on the money
list the past two seasons. He may no longer have that youthful
buzz, but Stricker is, at long last, back at the top of his game
and back in the winner's circle. Back where he belongs.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CALLOW LASTING IMPRESSION A last-minute entry, O'Hern won three matches before losing in sudden death to the eventual champion.

"I've kind of slipped off the face of the golf world," says
Stricker. "I know I have that good player inside of me somewhere."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)