Golf: `Year of the Tiger' begins early in Phuket

Tiger Woods, for three days an also-ran in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand, pulled off a spectacular victory yesterday to underline why he is the world's No 1 golfer.

Eleven strokes behind Ernie Els at halfway and still eight adrift with a round to go, the American wonder boy shot a closing 65 to force a play- off with the defending champion.

Then he won the eighth title of his 17-month professional career with a curling 15-foot birdie putt at the second extra hole. "It was amazing," he said himself. "I never thought I would win. I thought the winning score would be 11 or 12 under."

The Chinese "Year of the Tiger" officially begins later this week, but Woods has simply not been able to wait. Three weeks ago he fired a last- day 64 for second place in the Mercedes Championship in California and now this.

"It's just another year to me," said the 22-year-old. "It just happens to have my name on it."

But he and Els tied on the nine under par mark of 279 after the US Open champion and world No 3, who was clear of the entire star-studded field after opening with a 67 and 65, finished 74-73.

Woods has now won all of his three play-offs as a professional - and they have all been against major winners. His maiden victory came against Davis Love in Las Vegas, he almost holed in one to beat Tom Lehman at last year's Mercedes event and Els was the first to take him to two holes.

Not that Els was taking any comfort in that. This was another one that got away and, unable to hide his disappointment, he commented: "It was really amazing what Tiger did, but I should never have found myself in a play-off. "I wouldn't have been if I had played half-decent over the closing holes," he said.

The three-time US Amateur champion Woods, who believes his last play- off defeat was as an 18-year-old freshman at Stanford University, achieved a comeback that has been bettered only twice in European tour history.

Neil Coles came from 10 behind in the final round to take the 1977 Tournament Players' Championship and Jamie Spence matched that with a closing 60 in the Canon European Masters in Switzerland six years ago.

On a day of fierce heat the script most people expected was a "Duel in the Sun" between Els and second-placed Nick Faldo. But Faldo managed only a 75 and dropped into a tie for eighth spot.

Els's fellow South African Retief Goosen was third - he would have been in the play-off but for bogeying the final hole - and sharing fourth place on seven under were Worksop's Lee Westwood, the Scot Andrew Coltart, Alexander Cejka and Peter O'Malley. He really threw the chance of the pounds 133,330 first prize away by finishing double bogey-bogey.

Woods thought at the start of the round (he was joint 18th) that he needed about a 62 to win. Believing he could do that, he dressed in his now familiar final- day red shirt - red is his power colour, his Thai mother tells him - but fell three strokes shy of his target.

JOHNNIE WALKER CLASSIC (Phuket, Thai) Leading final-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 279 T Woods (US) 72 71 71 65; E Els (SA) 67 65 74 73 (Woods won play-off at second hole). 280 R Goosen (SA) 71 71 69 69. 281 A Coltart 71 68 72 70; L Westwood 71 66 73 71; A Cejka (Ger) 67 68 74 72; P O'Malley (Aus) 69 68 72 72. 282 S Leaney (Aus) 70 68 72 72; P Harrington 69 67 73 73; P Marksaeng (Thai) 67 72 69 74; N Faldo 71 67 69 75. 283 P Lonard (Aus) 70 71 71 71; R Allenby (Aus) 75 70 66 72. 285 M Long (NZ) 76 71 67 71; P Baker 73 69 68 75. 286 R Pampling (Aus) 73 72 73 68; JM Olazabal (Sp) 72 72 70 72; P Price 69 72 71 74; S Alker (NZ) 68 71 72 75; B King (Aus) 71 72 68 75. 287 P McGinley 69 71 76 71; S Tait (Aus) 69 75 70 73. 288 F Minoza (Phil) 73 70 74 71; H Meshiai (Japan) 73 71 71 73. 289 F Casas (Phil) 72 72 76 69; S Struver (Ger) 73 70 75 71; G Turner (NZ) 73 71 73 72; I Garbutt 74 73 68 74; A Atwal (Ind) 70 71 73 75.

- Mark Garrod, Phuket