There will be no Tiger vs. Sergio, Part Two, Sunday in the final round of the NEC Invitational, the $5 million World Golf Championships event that is still loaded with an embarrassment of riches on its solid gold leader board.
At the moment, Tiger Woods appears to have no rivals, as shown by the way he played the 7,139-yard Firestone Country Club course this hazy, humid afternoon. In his first tournament since beating Sergio Garcia to win the PGA Championship two weeks ago, Woods shot an 8-under round of 62 and opened a five-shot lead over resurgent Fred Couples, with a 63, and Nick Price (68).
"I've been here before," said Woods, who has won eight of the nine tournaments in which he led or was tied for the lead after three rounds. "I'll draw on those experiences tomorrow. You can't make mistakes and give those guys a chance to get back into it."
Woods, at 11-under 199, missed a three-foot birdie putt at the 12th hole and an eight-footer at the 18th. If he had made either one, he would have tied the course record of 61 on a day when his crushing drives and deft short-iron play simply overpowered this course, which played even longer than usual after being soaked with rain Thursday.
"Where most of us are hitting 3- or 4-irons into greens, he's hitting 6-, 7- and 8-irons," Price said. "When I see 62 on the board, I know I've got to make a lot of 20- and 25-footers to keep up. It's a phenomenal round of golf. I'm an above-average hitter, and I can't hold a candle to him. It's like David and Goliath for normal guys out here."
Garcia, the scrambling 19-year-old Spaniard, was definitely overmatched today. With three holes to play, he was at 7 under despite some dreadful drives and needed only to par in to get himself in the final group with Woods. Instead, he finished bogey-par-double bogey and was at 4-under 216, seven off the pace and tied for fifth place.
The two young men had dueled down the stretch in a memorable final round at Medinah Country Club, where Woods almost squandered a five-shot lead on the back nine before hanging on for a one-shot victory. They played together for the first time here Friday, and a Sunday twosome would have further solidified what surely will be a long-running rivalry.
Still, Couples and Woods in the last group Sunday should also draw a huge gallery. They'll battle each other in an event that features an elite field of 41 players either on the 1998 Presidents Cup team or the '99 Ryder Cup squad. The winner gets $1 million.
Woods has won four times in his last seven events, finishing no lower than a tie for seventh. Today, he put distance between himself and the field with a stretch of four birdies in six holes.
On a course that includes seven par-4 holes of 450 yards or longer, Woods was making most of his birdies with a 9-iron or a sand wedge. The longest of his eight birdie putts was 12 feet at the 13th, and he made no bogeys.
"I can't say I'm putting great," Woods said, "because most of my shots were within 10 feet."
Couples was putting magnificently, and he finished with a flourish, knocking in a 40-footer for one final birdie at the 424-yard 18th. He began with birdies on his first three holes, chipped in from 20 feet at the 469-yard 6th and had three birdies on his last five holes.
Couples hasn't played very much or, by his own admission, very well this season. That's the only reason Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw decided to leave him off the American team. Today, Couples admitted not being picked after five straight Ryder appearances was "a little tough to swallow" initially, but that he had "no problem" with Crenshaw's choice of Steve Pate.
"Would I have liked to have been picked? Yeah," he said. "Do I think I would have been a good pick? Yeah. But so would Steve Pate, Tom Lehman, Bob Estes, Chris Perry, John Huston or Lee Janzen. My disappointment is the fact that I didn't play well this year."
Couples nevertheless believes he's way ahead of the game after remarrying earlier this year and helping raise his wife's two young children. "So many better things have happened off the golf course than on it that I'm way better off," he said. "It's not really my life anymore to a point where I get that disappointed when I don't play that well."
For Woods, his life is consumed by playing well. He has restructured his swing, modified his go-for-broke philosophy and continues to work on his game relentlessly. After his round today, he went back to the range to practice.
Woods was asked if he felt he had any true rivals, considering his results over the last three months.
"Anybody in the field is a rival," he said. "You can't say it's just one person, or even just myself. I have to go out tomorrow and play a solid round of golf and give myself a chance of winning. It's the product of a lot of hard work that's paying off now. It's what everyone is starting to see."
Said Couples: "I can't go out there tomorrow and say, 'Hey, I'm going to shoot 65 and beat him.' He's on a roll. He's obviously the best player in the world right now. He's proving that every week."
Firestone Country Club, South course, Akron, Ohio:
Tiger Woods 62 -11
Fred Couples 63 -6
Nick Price 68 -6
Carlos Franco 70 -5