- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — The 86th PGA Championship has come down to a duel between golf’s once and future kings.

Former major champions Vijay Singh and Justin Leonard separated themselves from the field yesterday at Whistling Straits. The 41-year-old Fijian reached 12 under to take a one stroke lead over Leonard and a four-shot cushion over a high-profile pack at 8 under.

“I feel comfortable with my lead,” said Singh, who has a PGA Tour-best four victories this season and his sights set on golf’s No.1 ranking. “I’m playing well enough to feel like every time I tee it up, I can win golf tournaments.”

Singh, who posted a sweat-free 69 yesterday on the 7,514-yard, par-72 layout, is a man of few words. But when someone has won eight times in 20 months, owns a green jacket (2000 Masters) and a Wanamaker Trophy (1998 PGA) and is just 18 holes from moving into a dead heat with Tiger Woods as the game’s top player, he doesn’t need to do much talking.

“Vijay is an incredible player,” said Leonard, whose brilliant burst onto the PGA Tour and the 1997 British Open victory have given way to a series of solid, though unspectacular, seasons. “Tomorrow is going to be a fun day. I’m going to get to go head-to-head with one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world. It should be really exciting, and that’s a huge challenge.”

It’s going to be a huge challenge because Singh has converted seven straight 54-hole leads into victories and won both of the Slams in which he’s served as Sunday front-runner. Leonard always has had the reputation as a steely competitor, the “grim-faced Texan.” But Singh is pure python, a competitive constrictor who likes to squeeze the life out of his opponents.

If the defining moment of Singh’s early career was the scorecard doctoring episode at the 1985 Indonesian Open, a lapse in judgment that earned him two years as a teaching pro in Borneo, the most telling moment of his recent career came at last season’s American Express Championship.

Paired with Woods in the final group on Sunday, Singh stood stone-faced on the first teebox when Tiger approached him and said, “Good luck.” Singh looked directly at the world No.1 and replied, “Titleist 2.”

He might not be a nice guy or a particularly good sport, but Singh is a more unrepentant, cold-blooded, single-minded player than perhaps even Woods. And Leonard, well, he might appear similarly serious and directed on the outside. But the 32-year-old Texan has swallowed a good deal of humility since he was golf’s golden child a decade ago.

He faltered in a playoff against total unknowns Paul Lawrie and Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie to lose. And then two years ago in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, Leonard took a three-stroke lead over Rich Beem into Sunday’s play and swooned to a closing 77. He was an afterthought at the turn, losing both the Wanamaker Trophy and huge chunk of his chits as a competitive bulldog.

“I’ve gained a lot of perspective in the last couple of years since Hazeltine,” said Leonard, who has seen the birth of his first child, daughter Reese, in the interim. “What I do tomorrow is not going to define the player that I am, the person that I am to myself. And it really shouldn’t for anybody else.”

Though that wouldn’t qualify as a complete out-clause for tomorrow’s performance, it’s certainly a pretty strong hint. Not that Leonard isn’t playing well. Yesterday, his five birdies all came from inside of six feet. But the bottom line is that just a month ago, Leonard was in the process of missing three straight cuts. He has just one top-10 finish all year (tied for ninth at the FBR Open). And while his fairways and greens routine yesterday yielded a handful of point-blank birdies and a 70, Singh played only competently (by his lofty standards) from tee to green and still walked off with a 69.

As for anyone lower on the board entering the fray, it’s important to note no player outside the final group has won the PGA Championship since 1995 (Steve Elkington at Riviera). And Singh isn’t exactly one to spit the bit.

That said, there should be some spirited attacks from the cluster at 8 under, a group that includes Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Darren Clarke. A 65 is certainly in play at Whistling Straits, as evidenced by Miguel Angel Jimenez’ 7-under show Friday. And Mickelson posted yesterday’s best with a 67. But not even Lefty legitimately fancies his chances.

“Well, you want to be in the lead,” Mickelson said. “The only time I’ve led after 54 holes [in a major], I was able to win the tournament. That was at the Masters. It’s much easier having a couple of shots in hand than it is trying to chase because you don’t have room for error. If you make a bogey or two coming from behind, you have to press and make more birdies.”

Els and Clarke pressed all the way around and wound up with a pair of ground-giving 72s yesterday. For the third consecutive day, Els was allergic to the fairways. And it appears likely the smooth-swinging South African will become the first player in 15 years to finish in the top 10 in all four of a season’s majors without a victory.

“I’ve just been extremely erratic off the tee,” said Els, who hit just four fairways yesterday, including a miss with an iron at the last. “I’ve won a British Open hitting it crooked before, but you can’t really do that around here and expect to succeed.”


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