Even by Maui's standards, Tiger Woods is riding a remarkable wave.
Pushed into a heart-stopping playoff by two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, Woods kept alive golf's longest winning streak in 46 years today with a 40-foot birdie putt on the second sudden-death hole to win the Mercedes Championship.
It was his fifth consecutive victory, the most since Ben Hogan won five straight tournaments in 1953. Woods moved closer to the record once thought untouchable--11 straight by Byron Nelson in 1945.
"I think he's a legend in the making," Els said. "You guys [in the media] have helped, but he's backed it up with his golf game. He's 24. He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his forties."
With a spectacular finish to the first tournament of the year, Woods and Els matched eagles on the 18th hole to force the playoff. Woods made a six-foot birdie putt on the same hole 20 minutes later to keep the playoff going.
He ended it with his 40-footer on the first hole, stepping off to the side as it got closer and unleashing a fist pump as it fell. Els's 35-footer stopped about a foot short of the hole.
Along with $522,000--enough to move him to No. 3 on the career money list at age 24--Woods won a Mercedes SL500 Sport that sells for $88,000 and a blazer made of cashmere and silk valued at $3,300.
"When you're in competition that close, you don't realize what you're doing," Woods said. "You're just trying to hit this shot, right here, right now."
Els outplayed Woods from tee to green, but missed two short putts on the back nine that might have won it before the 18th hole. "At least I pushed him to extra time," Els said.
Woods gave Els new hope when he missed the green on No. 17 and lipped out a par putt.
Both players bombed their drives on the 663-yard closing hole, Els a few yards longer. Woods hit first, a 3-wood that hit softly on the right side of the green and caught the slope, rolling closer to the hole until it stopped eight feet away.
Els was up to the challenge. His 3-wood hit short, bounded onto the green and stopped six feet away. Woods again put on the heat by making his eagle putt, worthy of a trademark pump of the fist. Els didn't blink, and rolled in his eagle putt to force a playoff.
Els again hit the 18th green in the playoff with a 3-wood from 323 yards; Woods's approach stayed right of the green. His 60-foot effort came up six feet below the hole, and Els thought he had it won until his 30-foot eagle putt veered off to the right at the last turn.
Woods made his birdie, then clinched the 16th victory of his young career on the next hole.
Woods and Els shot 68s for 16-under 276. Defending champion David Duval had a 68 and was four behind.
Woods has won eight out of his last 11 PGA events. It was the 14th time he has won worldwide when he has had at least a share of the lead after 54 holes.
Mike Weir made five straight birdies on the back nine and had a 67 to finish fourth at 285, along with Jim Furyk.
That Woods and Els were the only players to break par all four rounds was a testament to their play this week, considering the trade winds out of the northeast were strong all four days. The winds were tolerable today, and 18 players broke par. Carlos Franco had the best round, a bogey-free 67 that left him at 287 with Jesper Parnevik.
Tied at 11 under to start the final round, Els hit a 5-iron on the 218-yard second hole that stopped three feet past the hole for a birdie. Woods stayed in the game with two crucial six-footers, one to save par on No. 2 and another on the par-5 fifth for birdie after his approach found the bunker.
Woods pulled even with a 12-foot birdie on No. 6, but he three-putted from 30 feet on the next hole to slip one back. Both missed birdie chances on No. 8, and both closed out the front nine with birdies. Els said it would come down to the back nine today, and he could have easily backed down from the No. 1 player in the world. The South African made only his second score lower than par all week--a bogey on No. 10, and Woods took a one-stroke lead by making a five-foot birdie putt.
But Els hit the flag with his tee shot on the par-3 11th and made the two-footer to pull into a tie.
SCHEDULE CHANGE: The Tour Championship will return to its traditional place on the schedule as the final official event of the PGA Tour in 2001, Commissioner Tim Finchem said in announcing minor changes to the World Golf Championship series.