In fact, Woods found only one similarity between

By Doug Ferguson Associated Press Published:

In fact, Woods found only one similarity between his victory Sunday in the NEC Invitational and his win at Medinah that gave him his second major championship.

"Winning never gets old," he said after holding off the hard-charging yet fast-fading Phil Mickelson at Firestone Country Club. "It feels good _ not only when you can win, but when you can beat the best players.

"I take more satisfaction out of going out there and beating the best players in the game."

The PGA Championship had the strongest field ever assembled for a major. The NEC Invitational, the World Golf Championship event for Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players, had 23 of the top 24 players in the world ranking.

Both got the same champion. Both had a familiar finish.

Woods lost a comfortable lead down the stretch, just like he did at Medinah, but recovered to make a clutch putt on the 17th that secured the $1 million prize and his fifth victory in eight tournaments.

He finished with a 1-over 71, which was nowhere near as good as the 62 he shot in the third round to build a 5-stroke lead going into Sunday. But it was enough, and ultimately that was all that mattered.

"I'll look at some of my mistakes," said Woods, who had a 270. "But more importantly, the fact that I won _ and to do it with the game that I didn't have yesterday _ I feel pretty good about that."

At Medinah, it was Sergio Garcia who gave him a scare with a birdie and a miraculous shot next to a tree trunk for par that forced Woods to be at his best over the closing holes.

This time the challenge came from Mickelson, who has one victory and two seconds at Firestone when the tournament used to be called the World Series of Golf. Mickelson had a lot of birdies and a couple of brilliant par saves.

But he also failed to finish the job, making bogeys on two of the last three holes _ just like he did in the U.S. Open, when he finished one stroke behind Payne Stewart.

"I'm pleased with the front nine and the fact that I had a shot at winning the tournament when it looked like Tiger may have already run away with it," Mickelson said, in contention for the first time as a father.

"But I'm certainly disappointed with the way I finished," he said. "That's happened a couple times this year, and I need to get tougher on the last few holes."

No one could possibly be tougher than Woods down the stretch.

He started the final round with a 5-stroke lead and promptly birdied two of the first five holes. Even though Mickelson made birdies on five of the first seven holes on a windy day at Firestone, Woods still had a 4-stroke lead.

But it began to shrink _ a three-putt bogey on No. 8, Woods first in 27 holes; the missed 4-footer for par on No. 14, another 8-foot miss for par on the next hole. Woods and Mickelson were actually tied for a moment, although Mickelson promptly missed his chip for par on the 18th and finished at 271.

Woods, who led by five strokes with seven holes to play at Medinah, maintained his 1-stroke lead over the 19-year-old Spaniard in the PGA by sinking a clutch 8-foot par putt on the 17th.

Here he was again, leading by one on the 17th hole at Firestone and needing a birdie to give him a cushion on the 18th. The ball crept to the hole, and Woods knelt down and fired four fist-pumps when it dropped.

"To make a putt like I did on 17 ... when I look back on my back nine, I really didn't make anything," Woods said. "To step up and bury that one, it sure feels pretty good."

The 2-stroke cushion restored, Woods played conservatively on the 464-yard closing hole. He hit a 2-iron into the rough and laid up with a 7-iron, but then caught his chip fat and had 60 feet left for par.

He coaxed the putt within 2 feet, a great putt under the circumstances, and tapped in for the victory.

Mickelson, who has won a World Series of Golf at Firestone and finished second twice, earned $510,000 for the largest paycheck of his career. But he is running out of time to extend his streak to seven years with at least one PGA Tour victory.

The streak Woods is riding is downright scary.

He is No. 1 in the world rankings by a mile now, thanks to four months of utter dominance _ 10 tournaments, five victories, only one finish lower than seventh.

Woods became the first player to surpass $4 million in one season. He now has played three full seasons as a pro and has won 12 times on the PGA Tour. He has earned more than $8.9 million and already is 12th in career money.

He also became the first player to win five times in one season since Nick Price in 1994, and the youngest player since Jack Nicklaus won the Sahara Invitational for his fifth victory of 1963 at the exact same age _ 23.

"I've always teed it up to try to win," said Woods, who won for the

ninth straight time when leading after three rounds. "I'm starting to

reap the benefits of a better game."

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