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Woods makes them see the error(s) of their ways

Tiger wins his first event of the season as his challengers, including usual suspect Phil Mickelson, falter down the stretch.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 18, 2002

ORLANDO -- Collars tightened, despite the stifling heat. The wind swirled, the greens hardened, the nerves frayed. It was the final round of the Bay Hill Invitational on Sunday, but the atmosphere was like that of a major championship.

How appropriate, given the results.

The player who seems destined to win more majors than anybody finished on top, while the one who has yet to claim his first found another way to lose.

Tiger Woods made three birdies and no bogeys over the final nine holes to claim his third straight Bay Hill title while Phil Mickelson bogeyed four of his last five to finish five strokes back.

Amazingly, Mickelson led by a stroke with six holes to play.

"Today was quite a fight out there," said Woods, who won for the first time this season and the 30th time in his PGA Tour career, a total that includes six major championships. "On that board were a lot of guys who had a chance of winning on the back nine. I just wanted to keep the ball safe and to stay away from making bogey."

Woods shot 3-under 69 at the Bay Hill Club for a 72-hole 275, 13 under, four shots ahead of runner-up Michael Campbell (71) of New Zealand.

Campbell, Mickelson (71), Angel Cabrera (73) and Woods were among the players who led or shared the lead Sunday.

And those who tied for third -- Clearwater's John Huston (72), Rocco Mediate (70), Len Mattiace (73) and Mickelson -- certainly had their chances.

But they did over the final nine holes what Woods did not: make at least two bogeys or a double bogey.

And Mickelson may have made a mental blunder as well, although that could remain a subject for debate.

Having started the day three strokes back of Woods, Mickelson, the No. 2-ranked player in the world and winner of 20 PGA Tour titles but no majors (he has 14 top 10s), birdied five of the first 12 holes and led Woods by two.

But after he bogeyed the par-3 14th and Woods birdied 10 and 12, Mickelson made a fatal error (or two) at the par-5 16th. He pulled his tee shot into the woods, leaving him with a difficult shot over water to the green. He had 180 yards to the front, 200 to the pin, but with plenty of obstacles.

The safe play was to lay up -- remember David Toms doing so at the PGA Championship in the summer and winning at Mickelson's expense? -- but Mickelson said it wasn't possible. He tried to hit a 4-iron onto the green.

"I would have loved to have pitched out on 16. I just didn't have that option," Mickelson said. "I just didn't have a shot to the fairway where I thought I could get it in the short grass. If I tried to lay up, more than likely it was going to get stuck short of the fairway. The only shot I felt I had was to go at the green. ... I had to catch it a little thin to keep it under the branches. I caught it a little too thin and it went in the water.

"I don't feel like the play was bad, I just didn't execute it."

The penalty led to a bogey, dropping Mickelson two strokes behind Woods. Mickelson added bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18.

Woods, meanwhile, fought through early struggles. He bogeyed the first and sixth holes and trailed by two shots at the eighth, where he was again in trouble but made a 10-foot par-saving putt. Then he birdied the ninth and 10th to get back into the tournament.

"When you play on greens this firm and under these wind conditions where the pins are, you've just got to play one shot at a time and keep plugging along and not make any mistakes," said Woods, one of eight players to shoot in the 60s and the only one in the top 10 to do so.

"It's very similar to when you are playing down the stretch of a major championship. Anything can happen and it's easy to make bogey. If you can just hang around and keep yourself on that board near the lead, anything can happen the last few holes."

Woods added to his impressive list of accomplishments. The $720,000 winner's check vaulted him to the top of the PGA Tour money list with more than $1.5-million. He has won 30 times in 115 starts as a pro on the tour. And he is the first player to have three consecutive victories in three different PGA Tour events.

"In this day and age, it's an amazing thing," said tournament host Arnold Palmer, who is 30 victories ahead of Woods on the all-time list. "But he continues to do amazing things."

And Mickelson continues to find amazing ways to lose, although he had an ally in Palmer, who said Mickelson had to go for the green at the 16th.

"I don't think he had much choice," Palmer said. "Tiger was flying."

Of course, Palmer acquired his reputation by never laying up.

Woods is making his by winning.

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