Originally created 08/28/00

Woods dominates to the end



AKRON, Ohio -- Even in near darkness, there was no mistaking Tiger Woods.

He was a silhouette in the fairway, 168 yards from the green, trying to complete another landslide victory. The swing was unmistakably pure. The result was vintage Woods, the ball dropping from the dark haze and landing 2 feet from the pin.

"I could see the flag," Woods said. "I just couldn't see the shot."

With cameras flashing like strobe lights and fans flicking lighters like they were at a rock concert, Woods finished an otherwise ho-hum final round with a birdie to win the NEC Invitational by 11 strokes on Sunday.

The only suspense was whether Woods would beat the clock, brought on my a storm delay that lasted nearly three hours.

It was a close call, unlike anything else at Firestone Country Club.

He completed his romp over a world-class field with a 3-under-par 67 to finish at 21-under 259. It was his lowest 72-hole score as a professional, and it broke the Firestone record of 262 set 10 years ago by Jose Maria Olazabal.

A week after an emotionally draining playoff victory in the PGA Championship for his third straight major, Woods showed no letup in a game that appears to be without weakness. He now has set tournament records in his last four victories.

Even more impressive is that Woods was battling the flu the past couple of days, brought on by his intense pursuit of history over the last three months -- a record-breaking victory in the U.S. Open, completing the Grand Slam at the British Open and matching Ben Hogan by winning the PGA.

And now this.

Woods became the first player since Byron Nelson in 1945 to win at least eight times on the PGA Tour in consecutive years. It also was the third time this year Woods has successfully defended a title, the first one to do that since Johnny Miller in 1975.

He has won three of the five World Golf Championship events, and the $1 million paycheck Sunday gave him more money in the last two years than anyone on the career money list except for Davis Love III.

"I'm a better player than I was last year," Woods said. "And hopefully, I'll be better next year."

Next up for Woods: A clinic at Firestone in the morning, followed by a trip to the California desert for his made-for-TV match-play event against Sergio Garcia, an exhibition that pays $1.1 million to the winner.

Woods got in some practice Sunday -- he put on a clinic, and made another tournament look like a mere exhibition.

Phillip Price of Wales, playing his first tournament in the United States, got as close to Woods as anyone Sunday -- five strokes. But he bogeyed three of the last four holes and finished with a 69 to slip into a tie for second with Justin Leonard, who had a 66.

Both earned $437,500 from the $5 million purse.

"The experience I gained today was invaluable," said Price, a 33-year-old whose only victory came in the 1994 Portuguese Open. "I'm ranked 75th in the world, so it's a big arena for me."

The final moments at Firestone were like a circus. Players were desperate to finish their rounds so they wouldn't have to return Monday morning. They had the option to stop, but plugged along as the skies grew darker.

"If the tournament was tied, I guarantee it would have stopped," Woods said.

No need for that. Woods started the final round with a nine-stroke lead, and no one got closer than five strokes. Woods got it together not long after his fever broke on the fourth hole, and the final 30 minutes brought back memories of junior golf.

He and his father used to sneak onto the Navy course in southern California and always played the last two holes in darkness. That's where Woods learned to play by feel.

"You can to call your shots because you couldn't see where it would go," he said.

Such precision, such course management learned at such a young age partially explains why he has become so dominant in the game.

Woods won for the fifth time in his last seven tournaments, and has won 12 of his last 20 on the PGA Tour.

His 67 on soggy Firestone was his 35th consecutive round at par or better worldwide, dating to the first round of the Byron Nelson Classic in May.

Leonard, who hasn't won in over two years, was runner-up for the third time this year. One of those was at the Memorial, where he and Ernie Els finished five strokes behind Woods.

Phil Mickelson and Hal Sutton each had a 70, while Jim Furyk had a 68 to tie for fourth, 12 strokes behind.

While Woods was never seriously challenged, neither did he make a serious bid for the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record of 257, set by Mike Souchak in the 1955 Texas Open.

And just because it was another romp, Firestone wasn't devoid of excitement.

Stewart Cink got a hole-in-one on No. 12, a 4-iron from 213 years, and Retief Goosen had an ace on No. 7 with a 3-iron from 230 yards.

The best shot of the day came from Els, whose 5-iron from 186 yards on the par-5 2nd caught a slope behind the flag and rolled back into the cup for a double eagle.

And then there was the finish.

While not motivated by records, Woods was inspired by his caddie. Steve Williams' favorite number is 21, and that's where he wanted Woods to finish in relation to par. Woods asked for a dry glove on the last hole, and Williams wrote "21" on it. Woods hit an 8-iron stiff and the celebration was on.

"I've won majors and he wasn't that excited," Woods said.

Sutton made an aggressive start with birdies on three of his first five holes and two nifty par saves. Woods played conservatively, aiming at the middle of the greens and making all pars. He bogeyed the par-3 7th by chipping 10 feet by and missing the par putt, and suddenly his lead was down to five.

That's as close as it got.

Sutton made the first of three straight bogeys. Woods finally went at a pin, made a 12-foot birdie and coasted from there.

Price left Firestone feeling just as satisfied as if he had won. The only reason the Welshman got into the NEC Invitational is because the European tour changed its qualification from Ryder Cup members to the top 12 Europeans on its money list.

Price was ninth, and made his first tournament in America a memorable one. He won nearly as much money as he had all year in Europe, and enough to play the PGA Tour full time next year if he chooses.

With Woods playing like this, he might want to think otherwise.