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Chopra outlasts Stricker to win Mercedes title, earns trip to Masters

1/7/2008 - Golf

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The token that Daniel Chopra uses to mark
his ball on the green was given to him a few years ago in Japan
with an inscription that reads, "Fortune favors the brave."

His wild playoff victory Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz
Championship was more about perseverance.

And that ball mark sure didn't do any favors for Steve Stricker.

After twice watching a blade of grass keep the winning putt from
falling into the cup, Chopra won the season-opening event on the
PGA Tour when Stricker failed to get up-and-down for birdie on the
fourth extra hole.

"It's the best final round I've ever played to win a
tournament," Chopra said after closing with a 7-under 66 without a
bogey on a day of sunshine long overdue on the west coast of Maui.

He loved Kapalua from the minute he got here, and despite all
those times watching the tournament on TV and playing the
Plantation Course on a video game, none of that prepared the
34-year-old Swede for the final two hours.

He twice missed birdie putts on the 18th hole from inside 12
feet that would have won the tournament.

He got out of one jam when his chip settled into a sprinkler
cup, and he might have avoided another one when Stricker's long
eagle putt on the first playoff hole was slowed by Chopra's ball
mark. Chopra twice fell to his knees when he thought his putts were
going in.

"I felt like there was a goalie in the hole, like it wasn't
meant to be," he said.

There was no doubting his fairway metal to the par-5 ninth on
the fourth playoff hole that settled 25 feet away for a birdie.

Chopra, who only qualified for this winners-only tournament with
his first PGA Tour victory in the second-to-last event of last
year, earned $1.1 million and a Mercedes-Benz sports car. And his
victory earned him his first trip to the Masters.

"I get to go to Augusta, my lifelong dream," Chopra said.

It was a valiant comeback for Stricker, who birdied three of his
last four holes to close with a 64 and force a playoff that looked
like it might never end.

"It was no Tiger Woods and Ernie Els playoff, I can tell you
that," Stricker said, referring to the eagle-birdie-birdie Woods
had in 2000 to beat Els in a two-hole playoff. "We were kind of
throwing jabs and feeling each other out and kind of seeing who was
going to make the first mistake."

It was the first PGA Tour playoff for both of them, although
Chopra lost in a playoff to Aaron Baddeley in November at the
Australian Masters.

On the first extra hole on the par-5 18th, Stricker putted from
120 feet away just off the green when his ball hit Chopra's large
ball mark and took a big hop, losing so much speed that it stopped
nearly 10 feet short of the hole. He missed the birdie putt.

Stricker realized the mark was somewhere around his line, but
figured odds were low he would hit it.

Turned out he was wrong.

"It wasn't a coin," he said. "In hindsight, I should have had
him mark with a penny. It took a lot of speed off. But you learn
from that."

Asked about the mark, Chopra said it was flat, adding with a
smile, "It propels the ball forward."

Chopra had a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th in regulation to
win, but it stopped an inch short. In the playoff, he left his
eagle putt some 7 feet short and missed that one to the right, a
scene that began to look familiar.

His 25-foot birdie on No. 1, the second playoff hole, looked so
good that Chopra raised his putter and began to celebrate, then
dropped to his knees and let the putter fall from his hands when
the ball stopped on the edge of the cup. The second hole was
Stricker's turn to win, and his 15-foot putt just turned away.

In the end, he still got the victory.

Chopra had the experience on the bag of Mitch Knox, who was the
caddie for David Duval when he won at Kapalua by nine shots in
1999. And maybe it was just a coincidence that Knox wore a Masters
cap to shield sunshine that was long overdue on the west coast of
Maui.

Both players finished at 18-under 274 for the second playoff in
three years at Kapalua, which would have surprised no one at the
start of a final round in which a dozen players were separated by
four shots.

Chopra seized control early, however, and he looked like a
winner all the way in regulation, especially after running off
three straight birdies to build a three-shot lead with five holes
to play.

Then came Stricker's amazing charge, culminating with a 10-foot
birdie on the final hole. Stricker took only eight putts over the
final eight holes, which includes holing out for eagle on the 12th.

"I was so impressed how well he was chasing," Chopra said.

Stephen Ames closed with a 66 to finish one shot out of the
playoff. Mike Weir, who lost his one-shot lead on the first hole
and didn't make a birdie until No. 9, rallied too late on the back
nine and shot 70 to finish two shots behind.

"I'm not going to beat myself up," Weir said. "I played well.
Just a bad start."

Chopra might say he won the tournament by holing out on the
15th, where a bad break followed an enormously good one.

His second shot hit the green and rolled 20 feet past the hole,
but caught enough of a ridge that it tumbled off the steep slope of
the green. Chopra's first chip was too heavy and was about to roll
back to his feet when it landed in the circular depression of a
sprinkler head.

That allowed him to place the ball next to the sprinkler and
putt, instead of chip, his fourth. He got out of there with par to
keep his one-shot margin over Stricker. In the end, every shot
mattered.