Out of Woods, another win

Six-shot lead cut to 1, but it beats Mickelson

August 30, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AKRON, Ohio -- There was little of the drama of the recent PGA Championship, when Tiger Woods frittered away all but a stroke of a five-shot lead to hold off Sergio Garcia. And there was none of the back-nine gamesmanship that occurred between Woods and Garcia at Medinah, since Woods and Phil Mickelson were four holes apart.

Though the similarities were few -- none if you asked Woods -- in yesterday's final round of the $5 million NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club, the result was the same. A crucial putt on the next-to-last hole allowed Woods to hang on to win by a shot.

Woods used an 8-under-par 62 Saturday to forge a five-shot lead at 11-under par and built the advantage to six shots with a birdie on the par-4 first hole yesterday, then staggered down the stretch.

He finished with a bogey for a 1-over-par 71, but also with a smile, as he wound up holding off Mickelson for his fifth PGA Tour victory in a less than three months.

"I can tell you one thing," Woods said. "I am not against playing with a big lead. I love it. What it means is, if I go out there and I make a couple of mistakes, I have a cushion to fall back on. If I was tied and I make a couple of mistakes, all of a sudden I'm trailing and might not have a chance to catch up."

But that never happened, even after Woods bogeyed the par-4 14th and par-3 15th to see his lead cut to one. It didn't happen because Mickelson, after starting out with five birdies on the first seven holes and six on the first 11, eventually slowed down and then backed up.

It also didn't happen because Woods showed why he is the undisputed No. 1 player in the world. Just as he did on the 17th hole at Medinah, when he made a clutch 6-foot putt for par to stay in front of the fast-charging Garcia, he made another big one yesterday, on the par-4 17th. This time it was an 18-footer for birdie.

"Even in my U.S. amateurs, my first and my third, I made pretty good putts [on 17]," Woods said. "There's something to having to make one on 17. I stay focused. That doesn't change. It's just that the ball seems to go in. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining."

There is little for Woods to complain about these days. Not only was yesterday's win his fifth of the year -- the most by a player since Nick Price won that many in 1994 -- and the 12th of his already storied, four-year PGA Tour career, but it also was his second victory in his last three tournaments and third in his last five.

With a $1 million first prize, Woods vaulted over David Duval to No. 1 on this year's money list and became the first player to earn more than $4 million in a season. It pushed Woods to 12th on the all-time money list at $8,965,128.

"Winning never gets old," said Woods, 23. "That's the greatest cliche ever, and it's true. It feels good. Not only when you can win, but when you can beat the best players. The money is a byproduct of beating the guys out there on tour. If you go out there and accomplish your goal, which is winning, the money will come."

In the end yesterday, the venerable course became the biggest test for a select field of 41 players. Even Mickelson, who would shoot a 5-under-par 65, finally succumbed to the blustery conditions.

Looking to win his first tournament of the year at a place at which he has had much success -- winning the NEC World Series of Golf three years ago and finishing second last year, Mickelson found himself two shots behind when he bogeyed the monstrous, 625-yard 16th hole. But he quickly cut his deficit to one with a 15-foot birdie on No. 17.

After driving into the left rough on 18, Mickelson's ball hit the branch of an overhanging tree. It knocked the ball down, and he then pushed his approach into the rough to the left of the green. While he made a tough five-footer for bogey, it wound up costing him his chance at a playoff.

Mickelson took home $510,000 for finishing second, but didn't find much solace in that.

"I'm pleased with the front nine and the fact that I had a shot at winning the tournament while it looked like Tiger already may have run away with it. But I'm certainly disappointed with the way I finished," said Mickelson, 29, who also came up a shot behind Payne Stewart in this year's U.S. Open.

"That's happened a couple of times this year. I need to get a little tougher on the last few holes."

That has long been a character trait for Woods, dating back to his comeback victories in the U.S. Amateur. Those who began to question Woods after he won only once last year have been silenced, but he seems to take greater satisfaction in being at the top of his game.

"I'm playing well," he said, "but I just think it's a culmination of a lot of hard work. I kept saying last year that my game was better than it was in '97, but people would ask, `How could it be? You're not winning.' This year I'm starting to reap the dividends of a better game."

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