A real stinger: Woods leading by nine

Sunday, August 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AKRON, Ohio – The real stinger came from Tiger Woods.

On a day in which the biggest excitement was Woods getting stung on his left finger by a wasp, he cruised to a 3-under 67 to break another Firestone record Saturday and took a nine-stroke lead into the final round of the NEC Invitational.

"The stinger is still there," Woods said. "I'll dig it out when I go home."

Everyone else will be trying to dig themselves out another deep hole caused by Woods, who extended his lead despite failing to make birdie on the final 15 holes.

That bothered him about as much as the wasp sting – not much.

"I had a big lead," Woods said. "You don't need to put pressure on yourself. They've got to come get you."

Woods was at 18-under 192, a 54-hole record at Firestone. Hal Sutton had a hole-in-one on the 12th hole and nearly holed out on the 18th for a 65, the best score of the day. He was at 201, along with Phillip Price and fast-fading Phil Mickelson.

Price, a Welshman playing his first tournament in America, bogeyed the last hole for a 66. Mickelson finally got Woods' lead down to six strokes until he bogeyed the 17th with a flubbed chip and made double bogey on the 18th with a three-putt from 8 feet.

"To finish the way I did ... is upsetting me," he said. "I turned a good, solid 4-under-par round, with a bunch of missed birdie puts, into a 1-under-par round. And it's a sick feeling."

Coming off a pulsating playoff victory over Bob May in the PGA Championship, Woods liked his situation much better this week in the tournament for Presidents Cup and U.S. Ryder Cup teams, and the top 12 Europeans from the European tour money list.

"A big lead, any time," Woods said when asked whether he would prefer that or a competitive final round.

"I know it's much more drama for all of you when the finish is like last week. But I'd much rather have it when its like the U.S. Open."

He led by 10 strokes after three rounds at Pebble Beach, the only competition coming from the record books. He tied the U.S. Open scoring record of 272, and shattered the record in relation to par by finishing 15 under.

More records are still on the line Sunday. Woods needs a 64 to break the PGA Tour scoring record of 257, set by Mike Souchak in the 1955 Texas Open.

Even if his lead is double digits, Woods said he is only interested in winning, his only strategy to hit fairways and greens. That seems to be working just fine.

Woods, who raised hopes of a 59 in his opening two rounds of 64-61, looked as though he might establish a new magic number on Saturday.

He birdied the first hole from 10 feet, then made eagle for the third consecutive day on the par-5 second with a 15-foot putt from the fringe. Then, Woods' approach over the water to the third green landed 4 feet behind the hole and spun back to a foot.

Three holes. Four under. In about 30 minutes, his lead went from seven to 11.

The fans who covered every inch of grass along the fairways weren't the only ones who took notice. Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie were on the 13th tee when they saw Woods' scores go up.

"Monty said, 'He's already 3 under through three holes,"' Olazabal said. "I said, 'Monty, you don't know what you're talking about. He's 3 under through two holes.' It looked like it was going to be one of those days again."

Alas, Woods didn't birdie every hole.

After taking a drop because his foot was on the sprinkler in the left rough, Woods caught a flyer out of the rough with a 9-iron from 176 yards away and went through the green. He chipped to 10 feet and missed the putt.

It was all pars from there. Woods broke the 54-hole scoring record at Firestone – previously 15-under 195 by Olazabal – but failed to break the PGA Tour record of 189 set by John Cook at the 1996 St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.

Olazabal first set the Firestone record of 61 in 1990, and he was proud to note that he still has a share of the mark.

"I think it will survive another day," he said.

It would have been an ideal day for Mickelson to make a move, or at least cut into the seven-stroke deficit he faced at the start of the round. But he started with three pars, needing a 20-footer on the third hole, and twice missed birdie putts inside 10 feet on the front nine.

Whatever charge Mickelson put together came too late, and didn't last long. He chipped in for birdie on the 15th, got up-and-down from behind the 16th green for another birdie, and then chopped up the 17th for a bogey and was back where he started.

And then sank even lower with his double bogey, which knocked him out of the final pairing with Woods on Sunday.

That duty now falls to Sutton, who stated his intentions of beating Woods in The Players Championship and did just that. Of course, he had a one-stroke lead going into the final round, instead of being nine strokes behind.

Sutton's ace wasn't his only great shot in the third round. He also hit it to 6 inches on No. 3 and to a foot on the final hole.

"Tiger is playing awesome," Sutton said. "He'll have to help us a little bit, and he doesn't do that very often."