On a cool, overcast day in Orlando, Fla., fortune shined brightly on Woods, as an errant tee shot on the par-4 18th ricocheted off a spectator and stayed in bounds. Tiger took advantage of the gift, lacing a 5-iron from 195 yards to within 15 feet of the hole. One putt and a series of fist pumps later, Woods was back in the winners circle.
It was ugly. Thats all I can say about it, said Woods, who earned $630,000 for his 25th career PGA Tour victory. I was very lucky to have the breaks that occurred and executed a couple of good shots after that.
Playing two groups in front of Woods, who shot 3-under 69, Mickelson fired the low round of the day, a bogey-free, 6-under-par 66 to finish within one shot of claiming his second title of the season (Buick Invitational).
Mickelson birdied four of his first seven holes on the back nine to momentarily take sole possession of the lead at 14-under-par, and then scrambled to enter the clubhouse on that number.
Woods quickly tied the lefty with a birdie on the par-5 16th. Then, following an excruciating miss at the 17th, which brought the defending champion to his knees; Tiger rebounded majestically for his first PGA Tour victory in his last nine tournaments played.
Woods entered the final round with a one-stroke lead over Sergio Garcia. They struck their first blows a little past 10:00am ET (the tee times were moved up due to the strong possibility of rain, which never occurred.) They were also joined by a third, Chris Perry.
Just two back as the day began, Perry stayed in contention by saving par over his first seven holes. However, his inability to hit greens in regulation caught up with him before the turn, as he bogeyed both the eighth and ninth holes.
Perry, whose only Tour victory came in the 1998 B.C. Open, dropped in a couple of birdies putts on the back nine, including a 35-footer on No. 11. But a hooked approach shot at the par-4 finishing hole eventually led to a triple bogey 7 and a tie for eighth place. Had he parred the last, Perry would have finished in solo third place - a difference of $147,000.
It didnt take Garcia long to tie Woods for the lead, though it was by Tigers own doing.
After hitting a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway on the par-4 1st, Woods struck his approach shot 50 feet past the hole, where he three-putted for a bogey.
The two men remained tied at the top through the next four holes ' both birdied the par-5 4th. Then everything changed at the par-5 6th.
Despite hitting a near-perfect tee shot into the middle of the fairway, Garcia went for the green in two. That wasnt a surprise; he was only 214 yards from the pin. What was a surprise, however, was that he attacked the flag.
With the hole tucked to the left side, less than 10 feet clear of the water, Garcia blasted a 6-iron and came up short ' and wet.
I just kind of got too anxious there, Garcia later said.
Because neither he nor anyone in his group could correctly determine if Garcias ball ever crossed land near the green, the 21-year-old Spaniard was forced to take a drop some 200 yards from the hole.
His fourth shot barely cleared the water, but still wasnt on the green. In fact, it would take two more shots before he finally found the putting surface. He then two-putted for a triple-bogey 8.
Meanwhile, Woods was in great shape. He flew his tee shot past Garcias and then placed his second shot to the back fringe, where he got up and down for a birdie 4.
The hole proved to be a four-shot swing for the one-time co-leaders. Tiger walked to the seventh at 13-under; Garcia did so at 9-under.
In effect, that sealed the Spaniards fate. He only managed to collect one more stroke to par over his final 12 holes. Garcia finished with a 2-over-par 74. He tied for 4th at 9-under.
I missed very few shots today, said Garcia. Just couldnt get it in the hole. But Im really happy with the way I hit the ball.
With Garcia out of the way, Tiger still wasnt out of the woods just yet. He continued to struggle with his accuracy, missing fairways and greens, and relying on a very steady putter to salvage pars.
Tiger made a 12-footer for par at the 7th; a six-footer for par at the 8th; and a five-footer for par at the 9th to make the turn with the outright lead by three at 13-under.
The 11th was a two-shot swing hole. Mickelson made birdie, while Tiger made bogey. Then Mickelson, the 1997 Bay Hill champion, birdied the 12th to grab a share of first place.
Woods would remain at 12-under-par until he drained a 35-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14th. There were no fist pumps, just a sigh of relief that one had finally gone in the hole.
He would soon learn how important that birdie was. Crossing over to the 15th hole, Tiger glanced at the scoreboard. He was still tied with Mickelson, who birdied 15, at 14-under.
The next scoreboard that Tiger saw was on the par-5 16th tee box. This time he was trailing Mickelson - who also birdied 16 - by one stroke.
With a long par-3 and the difficult 18th up ahead, Woods knew he had to conquer the vulnerable 16th. However, his tee shot again went left and into the rough. Faced with a flier lie and 195 yards to the front of the green, Woods chose 7-iron and safely found the green. He two-putted to once again tie for the lead at 14-under.
Mickelson had to do some work to remain in a share of first place. A poor tee shot forced him to lay-up in front of the water-guarded green at the par-4 18th. With 82 yards to the pin, Mickelson showed his deft touch by nearly holing an L-wedge, and then successfully navigating in his par putt.
With two chances to avoid a playoff, Tiger just missed a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th. The ball finished inches right of the hole, causing an agonizing reaction from Woods.
What happened next was even more painful ' at least for one spectator. Tiger hooked a driver into the gallery, hitting a man in the neck. The patrons wife then picked up the ball, before dropping it back down.
I got lucky, said Woods following his round. If it would have hit the cart path, it would have been gone.
Instead, Woods was given a free drop ' since someone had moved his ball ' and then proceeded to smoke a 5-iron over the water to within 15 feet of the hole.
If I blow it at all, its in the water, said Woods. I hit that shot so flush. It was just fun to see it in the air.
But not nearly as fun as sinking the winning putt.
It feels great. This is what you need to have happen in order to win, said Woods, who had been complaining that he had not been receiving the breaks he got in a nine-win season a year ago.
You cant always go out there and shoot ' like say, what Phil did today and win.
Mickelson would have been the perfect foil for Woods. He ended Tigers streak of six-straight PGA Tour victories by topping him in last years Buick Invitational. He then came from behind to beat Woods in the Tour Championship.
The loss at the Tour Championship marked just the second time in Tigers career that he had blown a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event. His conversion rate now stands at 20 for 22.
Well its nice to be able to sneak one out on him like that, said Woods.
Woods and the rest of the games elite will now head north on Interstate 95 to Ponte Vedra Beach for the final event of the Florida Swing, THE PLAYERS Championship; where the worlds No. 1 ranked player wont have to answer any questions about his victory drought.
I guess if I dont win next week, I dont know if its a slump or not, he said. One in a row, I dont know.
Click here for full-field scores from the Bay Hill Invitational