Tiger Woods Leads NEC Invitational

Saturday, August 26th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Phil Mickelson promises a fight. Everything else points to surrender.

Tiger Woods was so locked into his game Friday in the NEC Invitational that he had no idea he was 8 under through 12 holes. He said he never heard the gallery screaming ''59!'' as he walked down the fairways and had no idea he tied a course record at Firestone.

``I just knew it was a 61,'' Woods said.

Everyone must recognize it as something much more than that.

``Phenomenal,'' Colin Montgomerie said. ``I can only see the gap widening, and good luck to him.''

By the time Woods was finished, he had rounds of 64-61 to take a 7-stroke lead over Mickelson after two rounds of the $5 million World Golf Championship tournament.

The 61 tied the Firestone record set by Jose Maria Olazabal in the 1990 World Series of Golf. Woods' 36-hole total of 125 broke the PGA Tour record of 126 previously held by six players, from Tommy Bolt in 1954 to David Frost in 1999.

The only surprise was that it came so close after Woods went through an emotionally draining week at Valhalla Golf Club, where he had to birdie the last two holes to get into a playoff and then hold off Bob May to win the PGA Championship.

It was his third straight major, his third straight record score in a major.

The majors are done for the year, but Woods apparently isn't. And Mickelson, while he wasn't about to concede the tournament, was smart enough to recognize one thing.

``It's taking a lot more under par to win the tournaments now,'' Mickelson said.

The 7-stroke lead is the largest of Woods' career, and the largest on tour since Olazabal led by nine strokes at Firestone in 1990. Only four other players have had a 125 in consecutive rounds, but not the first two.

``He's been playing so well, it's not like we're in shock,'' said Jim Furyk, who played with Woods on Friday — or at least walked in the same fairway as Woods.

Justin Leonard had a 67 and was at 133, while Furyk had a 69 and was another stroke back.

The 37-man field is for Presidents Cup and U.S. Ryder Cup team members, plus the top 12 Europeans from the European tour money list. It is a small gathering of elite players, but Woods is in a class by himself.

His approach shots hit their mark as easily as a someone shooting free throw. Drives were long and shaped perfectly down the tree-lined fairways of Firestone. Woods played out the shots in his mind, and executed them to near perfection.

``You have an idea of where you want to put the golf ball,'' he said. ``When you're able to do that, that's when the game looks easy.''

And that makes Mickelson's work extra difficult, even though he bristled when asked whether the tournament effectively was over.

``A little disappointing you would even bring that up,'' said Mickelson, who had a 66. ``One of my thought processes was, 'Listen, if I can make some birdies, I can get in the final group.' I think there's some real benefits to that.''

At this rate, about all he can hope for are free lessons.

Woods had a 6-stroke lead after 36 holes in the U.S. Open and went on to win by 15. He led by three strokes at the halfway mark of the British Open and won by eight. His strategy for the weekend?

``My game plan is really not complicated,'' Woods said. ``Hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens and try to make putts.''

Easily said. And for two days, easily done.

In a sensational round, Woods saved his best for No. 16, a 625-yard hole known as ``The Monster.''

On Thursday, Woods nailed his drive, but decided against going for the green from 285 yards away. He also noticed that a little more to the right, and his drive would catch a slope. So the next day, he aimed a little more right, caught the slope and wound up only 269 yards from the pin.

``Go for it,'' screamed the gallery, perhaps aware that only three players have ever reached the green in two during competition — Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd and John Daly.

Make it four.

Woods caught his 2-iron as pure as can be, slapped hands with caddie Steve Williams and watched as the ball landed 8 feet directly behind the flag, then bounced twice into thick ground behind the green.

``I only had 256 to carry, which I know I can hit that if I hit it solid,'' Woods said. ``The hard part was a slight downhill lie, which meant that I really had to stay committed to the shot, and possibly even release it a little early to get some more loft on it. I hit it flush.''

His chip grazed the lip of the cup for a tap-in birdie.

Woods has had at least a share of the lead in his last six rounds, and 16 of his last 25 dating to the second round of the Memorial. It also was his 29th consecutive round at par or better, the longest streak since the PGA Tour began keeping such statistics in 1980.

When will it end?

``I really don't feel it is a streak,'' Woods said. ``I feel like I'm just playing well. I think if I work hard and have a lot of patience and manage my game well, I can play this game at a high level for a long period of time.''

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