Tiger Woods Wins NEC Invitational

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Tiger Woods got stung by a wasp, had the flu and finished the NEC Invitational in near darkness. Normalcy was reflected only in the results — another landslide victory, another record-setting performance.

In an otherwise ho-hum final round at Firestone Country Club on Sunday, Woods somehow managed to put on a show when he hit an 8-iron within 2 feet for a birdie on the final hole.

``We could hear it,'' Woods said of the roar from the gallery that remained after a storm delay that lasted nearly three hours. ``We just couldn't see anything.''

This much is perfectly clear — Woods doesn't just win tournaments, he wins those with the strongest fields. He doesn't just post lower numbers, he sets scoring records.

Once his fever broke on the fourth hole and Woods eventually got untracked, he closed with a 67 and finished at 21-under 259. It was his lowest 72-hole score in his career, and broke the Firestone record of 262 set 10 years ago by Jose Maria Olazabal.

He wound up 11 strokes ahead of Phillip Price of Wales and Justin Leonard, the fifth time this year Woods has won by at least four shots.

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

A year ago, Woods won the NEC Invitational by one stroke over Phil Mickelson for his fifth victory in eight starts. It was an amazing feat, topped only by the fact Woods has continued that pace the past 12 months.

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 Sunday's $1 million pay check gave him more money in the last two years than anyone on the career money list except for Davis Love III.

Even more impressive about this victory is that Woods was coming off an emotional taxing playoff victory over Bob May in the PGA Championship, his third straight major to match the record first set by Ben Hogan in 1953.

Letdown is not part of his repertoire. He started out with a 64, tied the course record Friday with a 61 and never gave anyone a chance. Ultimately, the only race was against time, and it turned out to be the only close call.

Ordinarily, they would have returned Monday morning, but everyone pressed on.

``Because of the lead I had, I think everyone just wanted to get in and finish it,'' Woods said. ``If the tournament was tied, I guarantee we would have stopped.''

Why bother? Woods led by nine at the start of the final round and only Price and Hal Sutton, playing in the final group with Woods, got any closer than five shots. Woods eliminated any drama with a two-shot swing on No. 8 when he made a 12-foot birdie putt after Sutton found the bunker and hit a thin shot off wet sand across the green and made a bogey.

There were a few thrills. Stewart Cink and Retief Goosen each made a hole-in-one, and Ernie Els made a double-eagle on the par-5 2nd when his 5-iron from 186 yards caught the slope behind the hole and rolled back into the cup.

Woods, as usual, stole the show at the end.

While not motivated by records, he was inspired by his caddie. Steve Williams' favorite number is 21, and he wanted Woods to get to 21 under with a birdie on the last hole. When Woods asked for a dry glove, Williams gave him one — but not before writing ''21'' on it as a reminder.

It was an 8-iron from 168 yards, hit pure as can be. They couldn't see where it landed, but they didn't have to with the roar that came from the green.

``I've won majors, and he was not that excited,'' Woods said.

The way Woods finished another romp of a world-class field was only fitting. As a kid, he and his father used to sneak on the Navy course in Southern California at twilight and play into the darkness.

``You have to call the shot you're going to hit,'' he said. ``That's the only way you know where it's going to go. It's right-hand side, two-yard draw, three-yard cut. That's the way I grew up playing.''

That's what he does now, controlling his shots with such remarkable consistency that he always puts himself in contention, and sometimes makes a mockery of the rest of the field.

His last five victories have come in three majors, a World Golf Championship event and the Memorial Tournament, which always gets one of the best fields on tour.

Price, 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 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.''

It's enough money for Price to earn playing privileges in America next year, although he might want to think twice if Woods keeps up this pace.

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.