Against the most elite field in golf this

By Doug Ferguson Associated Press Published:

Against the most elite field in golf this year, Woods overwhelmed Firestone Country Club with an awesome display of shots Saturday for an 8-under 62, giving him a five-stroke lead going into the final round of the NEC Invitational.

"All the things that I've done over the past couple of years to get myself to this position is starting to pay off now," Woods said. "I think that's what everyone is starting to see."

Woods made five birdies in a seven-hole stretch, none longer than about 10 feet. He threatened to tie Jose Maria Olazabal's course-record 61 but missed a 6-foot birdie putt on 18. He also missed a 3-foot birdie putt at No. 12.

Woods finished at 11-under 199 and is in a comfortable position. He has won his last eight tournaments when he has had at least a share of the lead going into the final round.

"He's on a roll. He's the best player in the world right now, and he's proving it every week," said Fred Couples, whose 63 looked rather ordinary in comparison but was enough to put him at 6-under 204.

A victory Sunday would be the fifth in the United States this year for Woods, the most since Nick Price won five times in 1994.

Price had a 68 and was tied with Couples. He was hopeful the human side of Woods would appear on Sunday to give him or any other Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup player a chance to win the $1 million prize.

"I wouldn't mind being one or two behind, but five is a tall order," Price said.

Woods has been dismissing talk of a rivalry since it began earlier this year _ first with David Duval after he replaced Woods as No. 1 in the world, then with Sergio Garcia after the 19-year-old Spaniard gave him a run for the money in the PGA Championship two weeks ago.

But Woods has towered over everyone this summer. Since the Nelson Classic, in which he opened with a 61 and finished in a tie for seventh, Woods has been even more dominant than when he won the Masters in 1997.

He has won four times since his post-Masters break this year and had only one finish lower than seventh, that last week in the Sprint International when he battled a head cold and fatigue coming off the second major championship of his career at Medinah.

"I've been leading up to this," Woods said. "I've been hitting the ball well. Today, I got the ball a little closer. I can't say I was putting great, because most of my shots were within 10 feet."

He didn't even consider the 62 his best round, even on a tough Firestone course. Woods cited the 59 he shot with Mark O'Meara at Isleworth before the 1997 Masters, and his 61-65 on one day in the Pac-10 Championship while he was at Stanford.

As a pro, there was that 61 at Cottonwood Valley in the Nelson, and a 62 at Torrey Pines that propelled him to victory in the Buick Invitational in San Diego earlier this year.

Ho-hum.

"Our scores may be close today, but his game and my game are worlds apart," Couples said.

Garcia looked like he might challenge Woods again, especially when he tied him at 6 under by making birdie on No. 9 with a 6-iron approach shot from the 10th fairway. But wildness off the tee cost Garcia dearly on the final three holes. He went bogey-par-double bogey for a 69, seven strokes back at 206.

"I finished pretty bad. What can you do?" Garcia said.

British Open champion Paul Lawrie, tied for the lead at 5 under after two rounds, failed to make a birdie in a round of 74 that dropped him 10 strokes behind. That was the margin he faced on the final day at Carnoustie, but the conditions aren't nearly as cruel _ and Woods is not Jean Van de Velde.

Carlos Franco, who also had a share of the second-round lead, bogeyed the first two holes and the 18th in his round of 70 and was alone in fourth at 205.

A victory in the $5 million World Golf Championship event for Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players would push Woods' earnings for the year to $4.2 million. It also would give him $8.9 million in three full years on the PGA Tour.

Just as frightening is what the future holds, and Woods gave a glimpse of that on the back nine at Firestone, which was nearly as flawless as when Duval shot 59 in January to win at Palm Springs.

He was in total control of his game, his eyes locking in on the flag after every iron shot into the green. Most of them were wedges, because of his length off the tee and confidence that his driver would usually wind up in the short grass.

"It's hard playing with him because he has the ability to overpower a golf course, especially a course of this length," Price said. "Nobody wants to give Tiger Woods a five-shot start, but it can be done."

Couples, who will be paired with Woods for the first time ever on Sunday, wasn't so sure.

"If I don't play another great round, I'm not going to beat him," Couples said. "You can have anyone sit up here and say, 'I have a shot tomorrow.' But they're just kidding themselves. He's got to shoot 74 or 73, and I just don't see that happening."

Duval started double bogey-eagle, but never got anything together and finished with a 71, 11 strokes back at even-par 210.

The five-stroke lead is the largest for Woods after three rounds since he led by nine strokes going into the final round at Augusta National in 1997. He went on to win by 12, such an overpowering victory that some thought Woods might rule golf for the next two decades.

He might yet.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.