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Tiger Chews Up NEC Million

No matter how much he has changed his game, no matter what kind of prize is at stake, one thing about Tiger Woods never seems to change.

Put him under the gun, especially on the 17th hole, and he finds a way to win.

Woods lost another big lead but revived his putter just in time to make a 20-foot birdie putt Sunday, securing a one-stroke victory in the NEC Invitational against the most elite field in golf this year.

"Winning never gets old," said Woods, who finished with a 1-over 71 to hang on against hard-charging yet fast-fading Phil Mickelson.

No, but this business of big putts on the 17th hole is getting routine.

Woods won the first of three straight U.S. Amateur titles by making a birdie on the famed island green on the TPC at Sawgrass in 1996. He won his second major championship two weeks ago by making a pressure-packed 8-footer for par on the 17th hole of the PGA Championship.

And there he was again at Firestone Country Club, clinging to a one-stroke lead as he stood over a 20-foot birdie putt straight down the slope from the fringe. Woods knelt and fired off four pumps of the fist when it crept in, sensing how critical it was.

He had to two-putt from 60 feet for bogey on the final hole to finish at 10-under 270, one stroke ahead of Mickelson, who bogeyed two of the last three holes but still shot a 65.

"There's something about having to make one on 17," Woods said. "I stay focused that doesn't change. It's just that the ball seems to go in."

Right now, everything is going Woods' way.

He victory against a field of Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players was his fifth in his last eight tournaments and earned him $1 million, the largest payday of an already lucrative career.

At 23, he becomes the youngest player to win five times in one season since Jack Nicklaus won the Sahara Invitational in 1963 at the exact same age. He is also the first player since Nick Price in 1994 to win five times in a year.

The victory, no matter how ugly it got down the stretch, also lends credibility again to comparisons to Nicklaus. Woods has been utterly dominant this summer, and he appears to be getting better every week.

"I've always teed it up to try to win," said Woods, who won for the ninth straight time when leading after three rounds. "I'm starting to reap the benefits of a better game."

And he's been providing a thrill a minute, even if it seems unnecessary.

This was similar to his PGA Championship victory, when he led by five with seven holes to play and had to hold off 19-year-old Sergio Garcia. Woods' lead nearly evaporated when he pulled two short par utts on the back nine.

But like Medinah, he found the moxie to make the putts that mattered the most.

"To make a putt like I did on 17

  • when I look back on my back nine, I really didn't make anything,"
  • Woods said. "To step up and bury that one, it sure feels pretty good."

    The two-stroke cushion restored, Woods played conservatively on the 464-yard closing hole. He hit a 2-iron into the rough and laid up with a 7-iron, but then caught his chip fat and had 60 feet left for par.

    He coaxed the putt within 2 feet, a great putt under the circumstances, and tapped in for the victory.

    Mickelson, who has won a World Series of Golf at Firestone and finished second twice, earned $510,000 for the largest paycheck of his career. But he is running out of time to extend his streak to seven years with at least one PGA Tour victory.

    He can blame this opportunity on two bad shots a layup that found the rough on the par-5 16th, and a drive into the rough on the closing hole. Both led to bogeys.

    "I'm certainly disappointed with the way I've finished," Mickelson said, who had his best tournament since he finished bogey-bogey-par and wound up a stroke behind Payne Stewart in the U.S. Open.

    Craig Parry (69) and Price (71) tied for third at 5-under 275. Garcia took a quadruple-bogey 9 on the 16th and finished eight strokes back in a tie for seventh.

    Woods became the first player to surpass $4 million in one season. He now has played three full seasons as a pro and has won 12 times on the PGA Tour. He has earned more than $8.9 million and already is 12th in career money.

    It was the first time in 15 worldwide victories that Woods led after the first round and went on to win. And it was the second time this year that a third-round 62 set up the victory.

    After his first five shots of the day, Woods looked like he could breeze to another 62 and beat the field even worse than his 12-stroke victory in the Masters two years ago. It was as simple as a wedge to 3 feet for birdie on No. 1, as powerful as a 333-yard drive and a 9-iron uphill 164 yards on the par-5 second that left him just off the green.

    But his 4-foot birdie putt bounced over a minefield of spike marks and lipped out of the cup for a frustrating par. Woods made up for that with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 200-yard fifth hole, but by then he knew he had a game.

    "I saw him making a good start. He was 5 under through seven, but I still had a four-shot lead," Woods said. "Had I made one more birdie, it would have been difficult for him to catch me. But I made my share of mistakes."

    Those weren't nearly as costly as Mickelson's errors.

    His layup on the 62-yard 16th went too far into the rough and kept him from attacking the pin, positioned behind the water. He went over the green, chipped to 5 feet and missed the putt to take bogey.

    He got it back with a 4-foot birdie on No. 17, but then chopped up the 18th by hitting into the rough, hitting a tree, hitting more rough and having to make a nice up-and-down for bogey.

    Woods certainly could have made it easier on himself. After his first bogey in 27 holes, a three-putt from 40 feet on No. 8, he made par saves from 6 feet on the next two holes to keep a cushion. His lead didn't unravel as quickly as did at Medinah, but it was close.

    With only 76 yards into the 13th green, he went over the green into the first cut, chipped 4 feet by and pulled it coming back. A poor chip on the par-3 15th left him 8 feet short, and he pulled that one for another bogey.

    Still, Woods' short but stellar career is marked by his ability to rise to the occasion. He did that once again.

    ©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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