GOLF: Stricker is US driving force

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On an important day for New Zealand, what with the general election back home, their golfers could not quite make history at St Andrews. The Kiwis were hoping to lift the Alfred Dunhill Cup for the first time, instead the United States won for a record third time.

It was the first time the golfing All Blacks, who scored a satisfying win over rugby rivals South Africa in the morning, had appeared on a Sunday on the Old Course in this competition. Steve Stricker, in a similar situation, enjoyed the day more. The 29-year-old American played his first competitive round at St Andrews on Thursday and was undefeated in his five matches. In yesterday afternoon's final, he took on Grant Waite, also a winner of all his previous four matches, and won by six shots.

Stricker did not drop a shot in his 67. "Steve winning all five matches was incredible," the US player Mark O'Meara said. "I was glad to have two truly quality players with me. It's a great win for us and the States."

O'Meara, himself, was the one point that got away. Frank Nobilo birdied the ninth, 10th and 11th and his 69 was three shots fewer than O'Meara could manage. That left the middle match, between Phil Mickelson and Greg Turner, as the decisive encounter, and it was close until the 16th. The American used the contours of the green to steer his ball in to four feet while Turner went long. His par putt lipped out and the American was three ahead, as he was at the finish.

The day did not start so well for Mickelson. The left-hander lost his morning match as America beat Sweden in the semi-finals, and he got into something of a verbal exchange with his opponent, Jarmo Sandelin, at the 12th. The Swede had a birdie at the hole, but Mickelson took three putts to fall four behind.

Sandelin later revealed that Mickelson then said that "you should show me some respect and don't behave like that". Sandelin added: "I said, 'What's the problem?' He said this is a friendly game and I said, 'I know it is a friendly game but I want to win.' Mickelson then said, 'You have been playing shitty in the States.'

"I know I have been playing badly there and that's true," Sandelin said. "But just because he's in the top 10 in the Sony rankings doesn't mean he can say things like that. I can't understand why he said them. I just showed I was pleased when I holed putts. We shook hands at the end. I think I was over-reacting."

Mickelson commented: "I don't want to comment directly on what happened. The Alfred Dunhill Cup and the Ryder Cup and the President's Cup promote the game of golf and sportsmanship. I felt the match could have been handled with more sportsmanship."

Waite was the hero for New Zealand in the morning as he beat South Africa's Wayne Westner at the third extra hole in the decisive match of their semi- final. The second hole was halved in birdies, where Westner had driven the green and Waite pitched to three feet. They then returned to the 17th, where Waite again pitched superbly, this time to a foot, for the crucial blow.

In the afternoon, he continued the sequence when he pitched in at the fourth with a nine-iron from 155 yards for an eagle two against Stricker, but it did him no good in the end. "The way we have played this week, we can't be too disappointed," Nobilo, the Kiwi captain, said. "It has been a great week for New Zealand golf and we can feel proud of ourselves."

Despite concern over the conditions that October at St Andrews can throw up, yesterday was fine enough for a good gallery to turn up despite the lack of home interest, and it was announced that the tournament will remain at the Old Course for at least another three years.

ALFRED DUNHILL CUP (St Andrews): Semi-finals: United States 2 Sweden 1 (M O'Meara 68 bt P Hedblom 74, S Stricker 70 bt P Sjoland 73, P Mickelson 71 lost to J Sandelin 68). South Africa 1 New Zealand 2 (W Westner 74 lost to G Waite 74 at 21st, R Goosen 72 lost to G Turner 71, E Els 69 bt F Nobilo 72).

Final: United States 2 New Zealand 1 (M O'Meara 72 lost to F Nobilo 69, P Mickelson 69 bt G Turner 72, S Stricker 67 bt G Waite 73). (US win pounds 100,000 each; NZ win pounds 50,000 each. Sweden and South Africa win pounds 31,666 each.)