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Publish Date: 8/22/2005

Tiger Woods celebrates a birdie on the 16th hole Sunday at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, to take the lead during the final round of the NEC Invitational. Woods finished 6 under to beat Chris DiMarco by one stroke.AP/Amy Sancetta

Tiger on top of the world after NEC

AKRON, Ohio — The World Golf Championships were created seven years ago to bring together the best players from around the world. Tiger Woods has turned them into an annuity.

Woods overcame some shaky putting Sunday by making the one that mattered, an 18-foot birdie putt that broke sharply into the right side of the cup on the 16th hole at Firestone, sending him to a one-shot victory over Chris DiMarco in the NEC Invitational.

“I’ve had that putt for three or four years, and I miss it low every time,” Woods said. “I made sure I threw the ball out there a little bit more ... and it just snapped at the end. I thought it was going to lip out, which was how my whole day was going. But it lipped in, which was sweet.”

The victory, his seventh straight year with at least one WGC title, wasn’t secure until Woods punched a 9-iron through the trees and onto the 18th green for a two-putt par to close with a 1-over 71.

Woods has won nine of the 18 World Golf Championships he has played, and he has earned about $11.6 million alone from these tournaments, more than 20 percent of his career earnings.

“You started these too late,” he said.

Still, he has rarely had to work this hard on a Firestone course four times in his last six trips.

Woods missed five putts inside 8 feet and trailed Kenny Perry by two shots when they made the turn. Even the birdie putt that finally gave him the lead required an approach from 189 yards over the water. And it wasn’t over until he made another escape from the trees.

Woods finished at 6-under 274 and earned $1.3 million for his fifth victory of the year, one more than Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, enough to end any debate about PGA Tour player of the year.

DiMarco, who lost to Woods in a playoff at the Masters, thought he might get another shot at him when he shot a 68 to finish at 275. Playing four groups ahead of Woods, he had a 20-foot birdie on the 18th that grazed the edge of the cup. DiMarco watched Woods play the last three holes from the dining room.

“If you’re hoping for him to make bogey, you didn’t do what you needed to do out there,” he said.

Paul McGinely, one of four players who had at least a share of the lead, fell out of contention with a bogey on the 17th and shot 72 to tie for third with Singh (67) and Ryan Palmer (69).

Perry bogeyed five of six holes and wound up tied for sixth after a 74.

It was the first time Woods won with a final round over par since he shot 2-over 72 to win the American Express Championship — another WGC event — two years ago outside Atlanta.

Blustery conditions contributed to that, although mostly it was his putter.

Woods only made the hard ones, including a 15-foot bender on the 10th hole for a two-shot lead that gave him a share of the lead with Perry. Then he missed an 8-footer for par on the 11th, and a 5-foot birdie putt on the 13th that would have given him the outright lead.

“I just could not make a putt,” Woods said. “Either I hit good putts that didn’t go in, or I hit atrocious putts that weren’t even close. It was frustrating.”

Woods walked to the 14th tee tapping his driver onto the cart path until he reached the grass, when he pounded the club into the ground. He could sense the NEC Invitational slipping away.

And then he heard a groan behind him from the 17th green, and he knew the score.

DiMarco went after the flag and went long into the deep grass to made bogey. Before long, his score of 5 under was posted on the leaderboards. Woods figured birdie chances would be rare because of the tucked pins on the 15th and 17th, and because No. 18 is difficult to find the fairway.

“My realistic chance was 16,” he said.

Woods now has 45 career victories, moving past Walter Hagen into seventh on the all-time list. Twelve of those have come in three tournaments, with four victories apiece at the NEC Invitational, the Masters and the Bay Hill Invitational.

In contention for the first time since the Masters, DiMarco birdied three of his first six holes to get into the mix, but made too many mistakes down the stretch — back-to-back bogeys on 12th and 13th, and missing the 17th green long, from where the best he could do was chip to 15 feet.

“Bridesmaid’s getting old,” he said. “Maybe this will be good for me. Maybe this will light a fire under me.”

The 667-yard 16th hole proved pivotal for Woods twice Sunday.

He and Perry had to return at 7:30 a.m. to finish the storm-delayed third round and wound up tied at 7-under 203. Perry missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 64. Woods was between trees in the left rough on the 16th, pitched out and had 185 yards over the pond that guards the green. He hit into 20 feet for a par, then made two more pars for a 67 to get into the final group. He is 34-3 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead.

In the final round, he was deep in the trees right of the fairway, and could only punch out a shot that left him 189 yards to a tighter pin. Anything long is in deep grass with the green running away from him, anything short is wet. The shot covered the flag and landed softly, 18 feet behind the cup.

This time, the putt went in.

Divots: Bridgestone was formally introduced as the title sponsor of this World Golf Championship event for the next five years. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the Bridgestone Invitational will remain at Firestone through 2010. ... Stuart Appleby was assessed a two-shot penalty on the 13th hole when taking relief from a cart path. After taking his first drop, his caddie picked up the ball before it finished rolling. Already 2 over for the day, Appleby took double bogey on the hole and shot 74.

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