ORLANDO, Fla. - Tiger Woods wasn't at his best in Sunday's final round of the Bay Hill Invitational, at least not until he had to be.
With a Hollywood flair for the dramatic, Woods birdied two of the last three holes, including a spectacular one on the final hole to beat Phil Mickelson by one shot at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
It was a huge victory for Woods, who closed with a scrambling 3-under-par 69 for a 15-under-par 273 total.
Mickelson, four shots back of Woods at the start of play, had a 66, the low round on a tough scoring day by three shots. The average score of the field was 73.2, the highest so far this year on the PGA Tour.
Woods, the world's No. 1-ranked player and a nine-time winner in 2000, hadn't won on the PGA Tour in six months. To his dismay, doubters were beginning to grow in number.
"It was annoying because most of the people don't understand the game of golf," Woods said. "I guess if I don't win next week (in The Players Championship), I don't know if it's a slump or not."
Now, the 25-year-old will carry considerable momentum into next month's Masters, where Woods has a date with history. He will try to become the first golfer in history to hold all four major championships at one time.
"It's a great feeling to win, to beat Phil when he was really playing well and I wasn't playing so good," Woods said.
Woods gutted out his second straight victory at Bay Hill and 25th PGA Tour victory of his career, earning $630,000. He jumped from 19th to sixth on the money list with $1,175,857 in six starts.
"It was ugly, that's all I can say about it," Woods said of his round.
Fighting a hook off the tee, Woods hit just seven of 14 fairways, many of them badly.
"Some of them were off the planet," Woods said. "I definitely didn't know where they were going, except forward. I was just trying to keep it on the property and inbetween the out-of-bounds stakes."
He made up for the wayward drives with a strong iron game and splendid work around the greens. Woods needed just 27 putts.
"I felt like if I could somehow get the ball on the green, I had a wonderful chance at making a putt," Woods said. "I did what he (Mickelson) does; I short-gamed it to death."
One of the fairways Woods missed was on the 18th hole. It forced him to pull off a sensational approach shot on the par-4 hole that set up the victory over Mickelson, who had finished 25 minutes earlier.
Woods' tee shot on the 18th, a low, hooking "Nolan Ryan curveball," was heading out of bounds until it hit Tony Dekroub of Tampa. The ball dropped down, on the fairway side of the cart path. Two holes earlier, Woods had also flirted with going out of bounds, staying inbounds by less than 2 yards, but still made birdie. He also nearly went out of bounds on the ninth hole, but a tree stopped the ball.
"It got some wonderful breaks, especially down the stretch," Woods said.
On the 18th, Woods faced a second shot of 191 yards to a green guarded by water to the right. He faded a 5-iron to 15 feet from the hole.
"I hit that shot so flush and it was so much fun to see in the air, bleeding to the right," Woods said.
He then knocked in the tricky left-to-right breaking putt to turn back Mickelson, who was seeking his second win of the season.
"I thought he'd make it, just because he normally does that," Mickelson said. "He normally does make it when he needs to. I noticed a couple of the groups that came through, everybody was missing that putt short and low and he was the only one that not only read it correctly, but hit it correctly."
"I had that putt before and missed it low twice in the final rounds," Woods said. "I knew it breaks more than you read. I hit the putt just the way I wnated to and it took its time breaking. Once it started snapping, it went sideways and caught the hole."
Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.
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