- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

MIAMI — Tiger Woods returned to No.1 in the world yesterday.

Phil Mickelson made him earn it.

In a titanic battle on the Blue Monster before a sellout crowd, Woods made a 30-foot birdie putt on the 17th, then held his breath as the resilient Mickelson nearly chipped in for birdie on the final hole. After four hours of dramatic shifts in momentum and thunderous cheers, Woods ended a spectacular duel with a 6-foot par putt.

That gave him a 6-under 66 for a one-shot victory in the Ford Championship at Doral, putting Woods back at No.1 in the world ranking for the first time since September.

“What a day,” Woods said in utter relief. “If you’re not nervous on a day like this, you’re not alive.”

Mickelson was alive and kicking.

After Woods carried a 3-wood some 290 yards to set up an eagle on the par-5 12th and take the lead for the first time, Lefty answered with back-to-back birdies. Needing a birdie to force a playoff, and possibly win on the 18th, his 30-foot chip was good until the final inch, when it tailed to the right and caught the lip.

“I’m a little ticked at myself for not getting it done,” Mickelson said after his 69. “I knew I was playing well enough to win. I believe I should have won, certainly could have won. And I just hope that I have another shot soon. I hope that the next time we play, we both play well again and get in the last group. Because this was fun competing against him.”

Woods, who earned $990,000 for his second victory of the year, finished at 24-under 264 to break by one shot the tournament record at Doral, previously held by Jim Furyk (2000) and Greg Norman (1993). This is the sixth PGA Tour event where Woods has at least a share of the 72-hole record.

Vijay Singh, who had been No.1 the last 26 weeks after beating Woods in a Labor Day duel outside Boston, closed with a 66 to finish third, five shots behind, along with Zach Johnson (67).

Mickelson’s streak of 10 consecutive rounds atop the leader board ended, but not without a gutsy fight.

Most players would have buckled when Woods surged into the lead with a 25-foot eagle putt, followed by an uppercut full of emotion.

Mickelson came right back at him. He birdied the next two holes to regain a share of the lead, and was poised to beat Woods until missing two short putts — a 10-footer for birdie on No.15, and a 5-footer for par on No.16 after Woods had failed to get up-and-down from the bunker.

It was the first time in a combined 67 holes either of them had made a bogey. They performed at such a high level that each made 27 birdies this week, a career-high for both.

“We both played really good golf,” Woods said.

And with some 35,000 fans already exhausted of emotion, Mickelson kept them on their toes with a 30-foot chip that briefly dipped into the cup on the 18th before spinning out.

“From where I was looking, that thing was center cut,” Woods said.

It was only the third time Woods and Mickelson have played against each other in the final round, and Woods improved to 3-0. The other two times were the 2001 Masters, where Woods had a one-shot win; and the 2003 Buick Invitational, where Woods was two ahead of Mickelson.

It might not be the last time. Woods and Mickelson now have two victories each this year, and are clearly playing better than anyone as big tournaments loom, including the start of the majors.

“With all the feelings I have about losing today, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to me heading into the majors,” Mickelson said. “I just knew I was going to win today and when I didn’t, it was a real slap in the face. Because I’m going to work my tail off to salvage a couple more shots.

“When I come back to the Players Championship and the Masters, I’m going to be ready.”

Both players had their chances.

Woods missed back-to-back birdie putts from eight feet early in the round, but a pivotal hole came at the par-3 fourth.

Mickelson stuffed his tee shot into five feet, while Woods’ tee shot bounded off the side of the hill and was saved by thick rough from going into the water. He chipped some 10 feet by, and it looked as though Mickelson would double his lead. Instead, Woods made a tricky par putt and Mickelson missed his birdie try.

One hole later, Woods nicked the flag with his approach and made a 4-foot birdie. They matched shots the rest of the way, both of them twice missing birdie putts inside 12 feet.

The gallery soaked up every shot.

Every patch of grass was covered by fans from tee-to-green. The tournament was a sellout about an hour after the leaders teed off. They stood as many as six-deep around the shots, lined every path to the next tee box cheering as both golfers walked by, the kind of atmosphere rarely seen except at major championships.

“It was electric,” Woods said. “It was definitely bipartisan out there. You could hear Phil’s fans, you could hear Tiger’s fans. They were both yelling at the top of their lungs. When we got to the tee box, my ears were ringing.”

Mickelson and Woods kept them in the suspense to the very end.

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