Always something of a hypochondriac, Tiger Woods almost sounded like Woody Allen during last week's NEC Invitational, which he won with a birdie on the seventh hole of a playoff with Jim Furyk. His sniffling and sneezing through his postround press conferences because of allergies was the least of it. Last Thursday, Woods shot a four-under 66, then detailed a bout with food poisoning that had caused him to lose 10 pounds and skip most of his practice round the day before. On Friday, following a 67, he said he had taken painkillers during the round after injuring his left elbow by hitting a tree root while attempting a shot on the 13th hole. Woods said he was "close" to 100% on Saturday, when he shot a 66 to pull within two strokes of Furyk, the leader after three rounds, but reminded reporters that he had played the final round of last year's NEC with a 102� temperature.
Whatever has been ailing Woods's game lately, it figures that it would find a cure in Ohio. The not-so-sudden-death win was Woods's sixth straight in the Buckeye state: In June he won the Memorial, at Muirfield Village in Dublin, for the third consecutive year, and Sunday's victory was his third in a row at the NEC. More important, the win, his fifth of the season and 29th overall, was worth $1 million and put some distance between himself and No. 2 Phil Mickelson on the money list ($5.5 million to $4.4 million). Winning the money title could put Woods over the top in a tight race with Mickelson and David Duval for player of the year. A more immediate effect was that Woods left Akron in an improved state of mind. "I know that I'm playing better, and the things I've been working on are starting to come together," he said. "You have to be very patient in this game."
Neither Furyk nor Woods distinguished themselves in regulation on Sunday, shooting 71 and 69, respectively, to tie at 12-under 268, and the playoff was likewise highlighted by par saves, not birdies. Furyk knocked in a bunker shot for par on the first hole but then missed three birdie putts of 15 feet or less that would have won the tournament. Said Woods, "On every single one of those putts, Stevie [caddie Williams] and I said, 'It's over.' I was very lucky he didn't make any of them." Woods drained a 20-footer for par on the second hole and expertly got up and down from 60 yards on the third after yanking his drive into the trees. After Furyk pushed his tee shot beneath the low-hanging branches of a pine tree on the seventh hole and had to chip out, Woods stiffed his 140-yard approach and tapped in for the win.
The playoff, at least, added some much-needed excitement to a tournament that seemed to matter only to the few Europeans in the field of 39 still angling for the last few spots on their Ryder Cup team. Only one of them, Ian Poulter of England, got a sniff of the leader board. He finished 13th and moved from 12th to 11th in the standings. Players such as Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik, Europeans who might have played their way onto the team with a strong showing in Akron, were ineligible for the event and thus will have to depend on Sam Torrance's making them captain's picks.
Trying to instill some drama of their own into the week's doings, writers covering the NEC spent a lot of time grilling Woods about the "slump" that had kept him out of the winner's circle for all of 12 weeks. Woods seemed alternately amused and annoyed by the inquiries, but by Sunday night he gave signs of being sickened anew because of them. With a resigned air he scolded his interrogators: "You guys just don't understand the game."