As Tiger Woods made his way from the practice range to the first tee today for the final round of the NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he walked through a funnel of fans and made contact with many outstretched palms. Many were already offering congratulations for a tournament he seemed to have well in hand.
Clearly, they were a touch premature. Phil Mickelson, despite debilitating bogeys at the 16th and 18th, posted a 65 today and walked into the clubhouse trailing by a single shot with Woods still three holes from home. Woods was wobbling badly, with bogeys at 14 and 15, but in the end, he demonstrated once again why he's unquestionably the No. 1 player in the world.
With a curling 15-foot birdie putt from off the fringe at the 17th hole, followed by a shimmying quadruple fist pump, Woods closed the door on Mickelson and won his fifth event in his last eight starts, despite a harrowing bogey at 18.
Woods's one-over 71 in this second of three World Golf Championships event earned him a $1 million champion's check with a four-day total of 10-under 270. He became the first player in PGA Tour history to go over $4 million in earnings ($4,266,585) in a single season.
"Winning never gets old," said Woods, who has 12 tour victories in his first three-plus seasons. "It's the greatest cliche ever, but it's so true. This week, we had some of the best players assembled. At the PGA they told me it was the best field ever assembled. The money will come. I take more satisfaction beating the best players in the game."
There will be more satisfaction when Woods learns that at age 23 years 8 months 30 days, he also became the youngest player to win five times in one season on tour since his hero, Jack Nicklaus, won the Sahara Invitational for his fifth victory in 1963 at exactly the same age, to the day. Nick Price of Zimbabwe, who tied for third place today with Australian Craig Parry at 5-under 275, was the last to accomplish the feat, in 1994.
Woods very nearly squandered a five-shot lead in winning the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Medinah in Chicago over Spain's Sergio Garcia. Today, after he birdied his first hole, he had six shots on the field. But Mickelson began knocking in birdies, with five in his first seven holes, and got to 9 under at the turn.
Mickelson could take some solace with the $510,000 he got from the $5 million purse. He also could look back and lament several critical tactical mistakes at 16 and 18 as being mainly responsible for his loss.
His second shot at 16 was the beginning of the end. From the middle of the fairway, his 2-iron lay-up rocketed through the fairway and into the high-grass rough short of the pond guarding the 625-yard hole. His third shot landed 40 feet behind the pin, and his chip rolled four feet past the cup. He missed the putt, made bogey, and when Woods saved par from a bunker moments later with a five-footer, Mickelson was three behind.
"Sixteen is a birdie hole," Mickelson said. "I needed to put my lay-up shot in the fairway, and I didn't. I had a poor lie [on his third shot] and I was lucky to get it over the water."
He got one stroke back at the 392-yard 17th with a clutch eight-foot putt. On the 18th tee, he knew a birdie was essential to put some heat on Woods. But Mickelson drove his ball on the 464-yard finishing hole into the left rough, and had a tall oak directly in his path to the green.
His second 4-iron shot caught an overhanging limb and dropped almost straight down in the fairway, with 150 yards to the green. He hit his third in more high grass pin high, then made a gorgeous chip that ran straight and true toward the hole, but missed on the left side by an inch before stopping four feet from the pin. He made that putt, then waited for a possible Woods fold.
He should have known better. Woods had already won eight straight times after leading after 54 holes, and today he made it nine out of 10 over his career.
Clinging to a one-shot lead, Woods played 16 the way Mickelson should have. He hit his drive in the middle of the fairway, laid up short of the pond and still in the fairway, then breathed a sigh of relief when his third shot landed in the middle of the green. He two-putted from there for a par.
At the 17th, his tee shot kicked from the sloping fairway down the right side into high grass, but he only had 90 yards to the pin, and his sand wedge landed on the green, just trickling off the back to the frog-hair fringe. From there, he chose to putt, and his ball hung on the lip for a millisecond before dropping down, eliciting a huge roar from the gallery.
With a two-shot cushion, Woods walked to 18 knowing a bogey was just as good as a birdie, that double would force a playoff. He played conservatively, hitting a 2-iron tee shot. But it flared off into the right rough, so he laid up with a 7-iron, and had what looked to be a routine shot to the green for a two-putt bogey.
Instead, that third shot wedge barely got over the trap by about two yards, and left Woods with a tricky 50-foot putt. The ball stopped two feet from the hole, and his tap-in was never in doubt.
Woods was asked if he were feeling rather invincible these days considering that in his last eight events since May, he's been no worse than seventh.
"No, not all," he said. "Sorry."