- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — Tiger survived, Whistling Straits stiffened and a handful of marquee names surged to the top of the leader board at the 86th PGA Championship.

Former major champions Vijay Singh and Justin Leonard captured the weekend pole position by reaching 9-under on a somewhat sterner version of Pete Dye’s links-style playpen on Lake Michigan. But all eyes at Whistling Straits yesterday were on Woods, who needed a flashy finish to extend his record cuts streak.

After an opening 75, Woods began yesterday’s play in a tie for 104th and facing the event’s halfway axe, which spares only the low 70 players and ties. And after 12 holes yesterday, Woods was still languishing at 3 over with the cut line solidly projected at 1 over. Suddenly, what had once seemed like merely a vague possibility seemed more than likely: Tiger Woods, the world No.1 and owner of the longest consecutive streak of made cuts in the game’s history (128 entering the PGA), was going to bow out of an event before the weekend for the first time since 1998.

“I was thinking about [the streak] a little bit,” said Woods, who has stated more than once that he’s as proud of his cuts streak as any other of his epic career achievements. “If I was playing well, it would be no big deal. I would just try and get myself in contention for the weekend. But I wasn’t playing well. I had to somehow just grind it out and be patient and hope things would come around.”

Things started to turn around on the 13th hole, when Woods stripped a 3-wood, lashed an approach to six feet and then dead-centered the birdie bid to reach 2 over for the tournament and 1 under on the day. He played the next two holes with solid pars and arrived at the 7,514-yard, par-72 layout’s brutish closing trio needing one more birdie to avoid a angst-ridden Friday-night flight home.

Exhibiting the same vintage clutch play that has made him an eight-time major champion, Woods closed with a pair of birdies and a par. He crushed a driver and a 6-iron to the right edge of the green at the par-5, 16th and calmly two-putted for birdie. Then he laced another 6-iron to 18 feet on the 17th, the 228-yard par-3 known as Dyeabolical. Moments later he was fist-pumping for the first time all week, walking off the toughest hole on the property with a gutsy birdie and some cut-line breathing room.

“It’s not really talked about unless I’m pretty close to missing it,” said Woods, who finished with an up-and-down par at the last for 69. “I’m very proud of it. I think maybe people do take it for granted, because it’s not very easy to do and it’s lasted a few years. Not too many people have been able to play as consistent as I have for a longer period of time.”

Actually, no one has been able to play as consistently as Woods for such a long period of time — not even Nicklaus, who saw his longest such run top out at 105 between 1970 and 1976. And though Woods is well out of contention and near-certain to see his Slam slump stretch to 10, his major offseason would have seemed far longer if he’d been dismissed early from the proceedings at Whistling Straits. As it is, Woods is likely to watch helplessly this weekend as Singh and Ernie Els (8 under, 136) take their best shots at swiping his No.1 ranking.

Singh, who has a tour-best four victories this season, would seem to be the favorite thanks to his recent return to a conventional putter. The 41-year-old Fijian made the switch from a belly putter before his last start, and promptly rode the short stick to a victory at the Buick Open. Yesterday, he putted beautifully once again, posting a second-round 68 to share top billing with Leonard.

“I’m very surprised that I’m putting so well,” said Singh, a two-time major champion who has always been known as a marvelous ball-striker with a somewhat dubious touch around the greens. “You know, I’ve been in position to win a number of majors over the last few years, but I just haven’t finished the job. Most of that can be attributed to my putting. It just always seemed to let me down. Now, I feel like I can produce a good stroke every time I’m over the ball. … I like my chances on the weekend.”

It would be a bit more of a stretch to fancy Leonard, who has disappointed in his two previous serious major bids in spite of being the prohibitive stretch favorite. The 1997 British Open champion lost in a four-hole playoff at the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, falling to complete unknown Paul Lawrie. He then exploded in the final round of the 2002 PGA Championship, blowing a three-stroke overnight lead over Rich Beem with a ghastly closing 77 at Hazeltine.

Singh’s most likely challenger would appear to be Els, who is tied with Darren Clarke and Briny Baird one behind the lead pair. Els has been hard luck’s poster child during this major season, finishing second at the Masters to a scorching Mickelson, tied for ninth at the U.S. Open and losing the British Open to Todd Hamilton in a playoff.

“We practice for this. I live for this kind of moment now in my career,” said Els of once again playing himself into major contention. “It’s a lot of grinding. It’s a lot of hard work. But it can be very rewarding. I’m still waiting for that reward this year.”

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