KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Five down, six to go.
Golf's longest winning streak, for years thought to be unapproachable, crept closer into view Sunday in the Mercedes Championship, the start of a new season on the PGA Tour that had a familiar ring.
Tiger Woods won again.
"Winning is kind of a habit for him right now," said Ernie Els, the two-time U.S. Open champion who matched Woods eagle-for-eagle, birdie-for-birdie until the world's No. 1 player finished him off on the second hole of a playoff.
What better setting for Woods to extend golf's longest winning streak in 46 years. Maui is renowned for its monster waves, and Woods could be riding this one toward a place in history.
Not since Ben Hogan in 1953 has a player won five straight tournaments. When Woods tees it up again in a couple of weeks, he'll try to match the six straight PGA Tour events that Hogan in 1948.
The ultimate prize? Byron Nelson's record of 11 consecutive victories in 1945, the one record in golf deemed even more untouchable that Jack Nicklaus' 18 professional majors.
"Yeah, I believe someone can do it," Woods said before the tournament. "You need luck. But you also need to play well. In that stretch, I'm sure he didn't win every tournament. I'm sure somebody probably gave him a tournament or two here and there, which you're probably going to need to have happen."
That wasn't the case on the windy Plantation Course at Kapalua, where Woods and Els staged one of the most dramatic duels in years.
Tied for the lead at the start of the final round, neither player led by more than one stroke during the final 20 holes. Both made an eagle on the final hole in regulation, both made birdies on the first sudden-death hole.
Woods finally won with a birdie putt on the next hole, No. 1, by dropping a putt only he thought he could make -- 40 feet, down the hill but into the grain with 2´ feet of break.
"If you believe in something so hard, for some reason it only happens when you're in a crunch situation, when all the pressure is there," Woods said. "If you truly believe that you can make the putt, you can make the stroke, the ball will go in."
It did, and Woods picked up right where he left off seven weeks ago.
In Spain, under floodlights the second week of November, he made a 15-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to beat hometown favorite Miguel Angel Jimenez. Under cloudy skies on the hilly terrain above the Pacific Ocean, Woods was just as impressive.
"It was just a great, great fight between us," Woods said. "To hit the shots that we did, at the times we did ... Ernie and I have had some good battles so far. It's been great."
For his part, Els proved he has the game to challenge Woods. He was better from tee to green, even longer with his drives in several cases. Over four days and 74 holes on a wind-ravaged course, Els made par or better on all but two holes.
When Woods took a one-stroke lead on the 10th hole, Els responded by knocking down the flag on the par-3 11th for a birdie. When Woods reached the 633-yard closing hole in two for, Els bashed his 3-wood even closer.
"The more I play with him in these kinds of situations, the better for myself," Els said. "We'll see next time."
For all the talk about Woods' chief rival, no one has had more confrontations on the back nine with him than Els.
Woods came from eight strokes behind to catch him -- and then beat him in a playoff -- in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand two years ago, and he outlasted him again in the Disney Classic only three months ago, winning by a stroke.
Els whipped Woods in a 36-hole Sunday at Bay Hill in 1998, and also held him off to win the Nissan Open in Los Angeles last February.
Still, Els has seen enough of Woods to never be surprised by anything, especially a 40-foot birdie putt struck with authority on greens that require caution.
"You have to have a little bit of heart and a bit of guts to hit that hard," Els said. "If he missed the hole, he was 4 feet by. But he was probably thinking he was going to hole it. That's exactly what he did."
Woods has been doing that a lot, lately. His victims during his five-tournament winning streak include Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Jimenez and Els twice. Four of those victories have been by one stroke -- the last two in a playoff -- another testament that Woods' head may be as good as his swing.
The good news for the rest of the PGA Tour is that Woods is taking off the next couple of weeks. But the message his victory sent was daunting.
Stopping him will require great golf, and even that isn't always enough.
"I don't know for the other players, but it definitely feels like I'm still improving, still hitting better shots," he said.
And, above all, still winning.
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