Originally created 01/06/01

Els in semis; two Americans eliminated



MELBOURNE, Australia -- Steve Stricker continued his amazing run through the Match Play Championship on Saturday, winning on the 20th hole to reach the semifinals and ending an even more improbable journey by Nick O'Hern.

Stricker holed a speedy 12-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole to stay in the match, then won it on the 20th with an approach into 3 feet as O'Hern found trouble off the tee.

Top-seeded Ernie Els also got through to the semifinals, putting like a two-time U.S. Open champion to hold off Craig Stadler 1-up.

Els will play Pierre Fulke, who defeated Brad Faxon on the 19th hole.

Stricker, at No. 55 the lowest seed to ever reach the semifinals, will play Toru Taniguchi, who defeated Shigeki Maruyama, 2 and 1, in the battle of Japanese.

The play was lethargic compared to the first three rounds, but no less exciting. Stricker and Els both required clutch putts to survive.

Clinging to a one-hole lead, Els made five consecutive crucial putts to keep his cushion and then buried Craig Stadler with an 18-foot birdie on the final hole for a 1-up victory.

At the point, all Stadler could do was aim his putter at Els like a shotgun. He retrieved Els' ball from the cup and playfully flung it down the fairway.

"It wasn't a very pretty match, but it was a good one," said the Walrus, who received $150,000 for reaching the quarterfinals.

It was the third straight day Els was forced to go the distance, and he has come up with crucial putts every time.

"From No. 14 on, I had to make a a putt on every hole," Els said, and that's what he did.

He made a curling 5-footer on the 14th, then a 6-footer on the next hole when he hit his 75-foot birdie putt too hard. The 16th required a 5-foot par putt that was downhill and swung sharply to the right.

But the biggest putt was on No. 17.

Els hit into the right bunker and was shocked when his blast out checked up some 10 feet from the hole. He made that par putt, too.

Stadler, No. 92 in the world ranking, was 1-up through seven holes but never gave himself a chance to put any pressure on Els. The few he hit to within medium range were above the hole and required caution.

His best shot? At No. 18, into about 8 feet. He never got a chance to make it after Els closed out the match with a birdie.

"I putted myself out of trouble," Els said. "That's something I learned from Tiger. He hangs in there. You're not always going to play the way you want to play."

Just ask Stricker.

He was so erratic off the tee that he raised his arms triumphantly when he finally hit a fairway on No. 14. But the Wisconsin native has the right parts of his game working -- crisp irons, a delicate touch around the greens and clutch putting.

"I struggled a bit in the middle, but started hitting the ball better in the end," Stricker said. "That's the beauty of match play."

O'Hern was trying to continue his Cinderella story -- from No. 103 in the world ranking, to 39th alternate in the World Golf Championship, and almost of the semifinals.

Stricker, who had never trailed in any of his first three matches, never led on Saturday until the 20th and final hole. Thanks to his putting, he at least got to the 20th hole.

With the match all square on the 17th, Stricker hit his 25-foot birdie putt about 10 feet past the hole and had to make it coming back to stay even.

The first extra hole was the 14th, and it appeared O'Hern would win with a wedge that stopped 3 feet from the hole. But Stricker, facing a do-or-die putt, nailed it for birdie to continue the match, then won on the next hole.

Fulke, who has all but clinched a spot on the Ryder Cup team for Europe, holed out a bunker shot for eagle on No. 12, but was wild off the on the 17th and the match went to extra holes, starting on the 14th.

Fulke took a huge gamble that failed, hitting driver on the 319-yard hole where position is everything. He was well left and chunked his approach short of the green. Faxon played an iron off the tee to the fairway, but hit his wedge long into the back bunker, a difficult place from which to save par.

His blast went 20 feet by, while Fulke putted up some 80 feet for a tap-in par for the victory.

For Maruyama, it was the end of his perfect record in Melbourne. Maruyama was 5-0 in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne two years ago, and 3-0 at Metropolitan until he ran into his buddy Taniguchi, who built a 4-up lead at the turn and made a birdie on the 15th as Maruyama was trying to make a run.