Golf: Woods alone in class of 62

SUDDENLY, THE man who everyone said would dominate golf is doing so - and in a way that suggests his delivery is now permanently matching his promise. Two weeks after clinching the PGA Championship, Tiger Woods scored a remarkable eight under par 62 in the third round of the the NEC World Invitational in Akron, Ohio.

The result was the conversion of a two-shot deficit into a five- shot lead, the eclipsing of Fred Couples' earlier 63, and the extinction, for this tournament at least, of Sergio Garcia's pretension to his mantle.

In the first couple of days the two sensations were paired together. As Woods was quietly putting himself in position for his Saturday move, Garcia was in under the trees, behind the trees, everywhere but inside one of the trees. Sometimes he could not even see Woods for the trees. It is a measure of the man's magic that he kept pace.

Come yesterday he did so again - until Tiger came to what is often, for very good reason, called the turn. At the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th and 16th he fired in short irons that left him birdie putts of no greater distance than eight feet. He converted five of them and found himself five ahead. Indeed, about the only blemish in his round was the six-footer for a 61 he missed at the last..

Garcia, meanwhile, was his usual entertaining self, sinking a couple of long putts for birdies, but then, at the 15th, finally tangling with the trees one time too many. It cost him a shot and suddenly a romp was turning into a hard day. It became even tougher at the 18th when a topped seven-iron from the rough went all of 20 feet on the way to a double-bogey six.

It was proving a similarly arduous day for Carlos Franco as he saw shots slip away and his second-round lead comprehensively overtaken. But, being raised in serious poverty in Paraguay, he is unlikely to describe any day among the trimmed lawns of the Firestone Country Club as hard work.

Hailed as this year's Tour "overnight" success by virtue of winning twice in his first year, he is, in fact, 34, and toiled for years on the Japanese circuit. He hails from a country that has just three golf courses and, just to add to the degree of difficulty, is a Paraguayan who communicates with his American caddie in Japanese. He, too dropped a shot at the last, and is now six behind.

To win, Franco would need Woods to have a series of brainstorms. There would also then be the little matter of overcoming the combined might of the two Ryder Cup sides. Or to be more accurate, one of them. The other one, the one from Europe, was - Garcia apart - less than than illustrious, averaging more than two shots a man worse than the US team in the first two rounds, and only marginally improving on that in the third.

Paul Lawrie let slip a share of the overnight lead as he dropped shots on the front nine; the Masters champion, Jose Maria Olazabal, brought up the rear, thanks to a second round 80; Lee Westwood had a 70 to remain six over par; Jarmo Sandelin had a 73; Darren Clarke and Jean Van de Velde were so far back that their sub-par rounds of 69 and 68 respectively were barely relevant.

Indeed, Europe had only one player in a 41-man field in the first 14. Come back, Nick Faldo, all is forgiven.