Clarke an unflappable frontrunner at NEC

A dozen players began Sunday within five strokes of leader Darren Clarke at the NEC Invitational, an all-star cast that included Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk.

But instead of looking over his shoulder, the stogie-smoking Irishman went about his business and smoked 'em all by four strokes to win the second World Golf Championships event of his career.

The victory was Clarke's second in the United States, both coming in lucrative WGC events. In 2000, he shut down Tiger 4 and 3 in the Match Play final in Carlsbad, Calif. His win Sunday was also the first by a European on the PGA Tour in almost a year.

This wasn't the same Clarke who broke down after leading the first round of The Masters earlier this year. This was the unflappable Clarke who wolfed down a hearty lunch in between 18s in the 2000 Match Play final while Tiger was on the range gearing up for a comeback.

Playing in the group in front of him Sunday, Tiger gave Clarke an early run, getting to within two shots after back-to-back birdies on eight and nine. But Clarke, who said he never looked at the leaderboard until the 13th hole, birdied three of his next five to pull away for good. No one else got within four the rest of the way.

Woods finished six strokes back, tied for fourth. It was the first time he had played Firestone Country Club's South Course without winning. He won each of the three previous NECs held there, from 1999-2001.

Clarke hasn't always been the greatest of frontrunners in his career. In the 11 worldwide events he had led through 54 holes before this week, he had gone on to win just four of them. Woods, by comparison, is the Eric Gagne of the PGA Tour, only without the goggles. He's an amazing 29-for-30 in closing out events when leading after three rounds.

Clarke, whose 67 Sunday left him at 12-under for the tournament, has been near the top of his game in 2003, but hadn't been able to put it all together for four rounds of a tournament until this week. He had eight top-10 finishes worldwide heading into the NEC.

Thanks to an exemption, Clarke -- who intends to focus his efforts on playing the PGA Tour full-time in 2004 after spending the last 13 years in Europe -- will be in the field for this week's Deutsche Bank SAP Championship in Boston.

First thing's first, though.

Never one to deprive himself of a cheeseburger and a beer, Clarke was grinning from ear to ear when told of his $1.05 million first-place windfall.

''That won't last very long,'' he said. ''I think I'll go through most of that tonight. And I won't be trying very hard, either.''

Five observations
1. The NEC Invitational didn't do much to break the logjam in the PGA Tour Player of the Year race, which means the final two big events of the season -- the American Express Championship and Tour Championship -- will be that much more significant.

Three of the five leading candidates -- Woods, Love and Furyk -- finished in the top 10 at Firestone, but top 10s alone won't pull them away from the pack.

Woods, Furyk, Love and Mike Weir can more or less wrap up the title with a win in October's AmEx (the final official WGC event of the year), but in a season as wacky as this one, don't be surprised if it comes down to the Tour Championship in November.

One quick side note (listen up Tiger, Davis and Kenny Perry): The last guy to be named PGA Tour Player of the Year without winning a major was Greg Norman in 1995. That year, the Shark won three events and had a pair of top-3s in majors.

2. After opening with a 2-over 74 in Thursday's first round of the Canadian tour's Bay Mills Open Players Championship, 13-year-old Michelle Wie needed to repeat the feat Friday to do what Annika Sorenstam and Suzy Whaley couldn't: Make the cut in a men's event.

She fell well short, however, struggling to a 7-over 79 in the second round to finish at 9-over 153, five strokes over the cut.

Wie still had an outside chance to make the weekend after playing her first nine in 3-over Friday, but four straight bogeys coming in ended her chances. Still, she fared better against the guys than anyone else who tried it this summer. Wie finished above 35 men, more than Sorenstam and Whaley combined.

For a girl whose goal is to someday play in the PGA Tour, it was a decent debut. She'll get a second shot against the guys in a few weeks at the Nationwide Tour's Boise Open. Until then, though, she gets to be a teenage girl again.

This week, Wie returns to Hawaii for the first time since May to begin ninth grade. Since leaving the island for the summer, she's played in seven tournaments (four USGA, two LPGA and one men's event) across the United States, putting herself on the sporting map in the process.

3. In a year when guys we'd never heard of before the season are winning majors, it's appropriate that a long shot from down under pull off another major upset.

Unknown 19-year-old Aussie Nick Flanagan, who didn't start playing golf until watching Tiger win The Masters in 1997, upset favorite and U.S. Walker Cupper Casey Wittenberg in 37 holes to win the U.S. Amateur on Sunday.

''I wasn't even playing that well when I got here,'' he said. ''I honestly really have no idea how I have won, but I have.''

He never trailed in the match, but did squander a 4-up lead to send it to extra holes. At 19, he's the third-youngest champion in the 103-year history of the event.

4. Ben Curtis finished 10 strokes behind the winner at the NEC Invitational on Sunday, but he'll still count this as one of the best weekends of his life.

Curtis -- a PGA Tour rookie turned surprise British Open champ -- planned his wedding for Saturday night long before he could have known he'd have a spot in the second World Golf Championships event of the year. But that British Open win gave him that spot, and left him with two dates for the prom: His wife-to-be, Candace, and a the lucrative paycheck that comes with any WGC event.

Lucky for Curtis, he didn't have to choose.

The event was held in Akron, Ohio, a mere 15 minutes from Curtis' hometown -- and the site of his nuptials. So after completing a third-round 72 and granting a couple interviews, Curtis -- who was serenaded by the gallery on the 18th in honor of the occasion -- got a police escort to the chapel for the ceremony.

Here's the kicker.

The next morning before playing the final round, Curtis surprised wife Candace with a brand new Mercedes, which was waiting for her outside their hotel -- ribbon and all.

5. Rick Rhoden spent most of his career as a major league pitcher trying not to give up the longball, but he hit a home run Sunday in his second event on the Champions Tour.

Rhoden, who pitched for the Dodgers, Pirates and Yankees from 1974-1989, has earned $2 million playing in celebrity golf events since retiring from baseball. He went to Champions Tour Q-school in the offseason, but fell one stroke short of conditional status.

All that was in the past Sunday at the Allianz Championship, as he finished tied for fifth at 9-under. At one point in the final round, Rhoden actually held the lead before his putter faltered late (he three-putted three straight holes on the back nine). Still, he counts the experience as a success.

''I'm just proud I hung in there and played well,'' he said. ''Other than the three holes, I couldn't have asked for a better day.''

David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.