- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — Vijay Singh has staked his claim to golf’s top slot.

The 41-year-old Fijian survived a savage Sunday at Whistling Straits, emerging from a three-hole playoff with a one stroke victory over Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco at the 86th PGA Championship.

“I think this is the biggest accomplishment that I’ve ever had in my whole career,” the 41-year-old Singh said after a final-round 76. “I’m a bit surprised that I won after the way I scored today. … That has a lot to do with how difficult the course was playing today, much firmer and faster with a different wind. I guess they finally got the layout they wanted here all week.”

Singh moved to a close second behind Tiger Woods in the world rankings after winning his third major title, but yesterday Whistling Straits was the star. After three mellow days of favorable winds, accessible pins, receptive greens and low scores, a nasty quartet of factors conspired yesterday to turn the 7,536-yard, par-72 layout into the sadist’s show everyone expected when the field first arrived.

The PGA of America lengthened a handful of holes by moving tees back. For the first time all week, they didn’t water the greens the night before. They tucked pins in wicked locations. And just to treble the fun, the wind came howling off Lake Michigan for the first time all week.

The result was as predictable as it was hard on the eyes. The suddenly firm greens deflected all but the purest shots struck from the short grass. The speed of the putting surfaces rose to 13 on the stimpmeter. The layout’s final four holes played into a devilish breeze. And the field, which had gotten the best of Pete Dye’s funhouse all week, finally felt its wrath, averaging an ugly 73.768 strokes.

In spite of the setup and the elements, however, Leonard appeared to have the tournament in hand when he arrived on the 15th green. Having just struck the most majestic 3-iron of the tournament, Leonard stood over a 10-footer for birdie on the 518-yard par-4 that would have given him a three-stroke lead at 11 under with three to play. Singh, his playing partner and the overnight leader, hadn’t made a birdie all day. And a sloppy bogey from the Fijian at the 15th left the Wanamaker Trophy one putt away from Leonard’s grasp.

But the 32-year-old Texan’s putt curled cruelly around the left edge, beginning a trend that would lead to stretch-run ruin. At Nos.16 and 18, with Singh holding steady, the scene was repeated, this time on par putts, and Leonard tumbled into a playoff that never should have happened.

The 500-yard 18th, nicknamed “Dyeabolical,” chewed up the entire field but was perhaps hardest on the 1997 British Open champion. Needing only a par for a one-stroke victory, Leonard watched his flag-tracing approach from 206 yards land five feet short of the green in the grassy face above a bunker.

“I thought I had just ended this golf tournament,” Leonard said. “I hit what I thought was a perfect 5-iron. But it came up just a little short, and I didn’t get it up and down. I had a decent lie but not a great one. It came out a little high and fluffy, and I missed about a 12-footer.”

It was the fifth putt of 12 feet or closer that Leonard missed during his back-nine 39, any of which would have won him the Wanamaker.

“What ultimately cost me the tournament was my putting,” said Leonard, predictably gutted despite by far his best performance of the season. “If any number of putts go in, then … I mean we could go on and on and on, and I’m sure I will through the night in my own mind.”

Leonard also might have a few nightmares about the seemingly different Singh who showed up in the playoff.

“You know, I was a little angry with myself for doing what I did today,” Singh said of his regulation play and aggressive attitude in the three-hole playoff (Nos.10, 17 and 18). “In a playoff, you know you’ve already got second locked up. You’ve got nothing to lose. So you can go out there and just beat the crap out of the ball.”

Singh did just that on the first playoff hole, mashing a 335-yard drive down the 10th fairway that left him just 35 yards short of the green. While his opponents were bunting their way toward scrambling pars, Singh pitched to eight feet and calmly dropped his first birdie of the day to take a lead he would never relinquish.

If Singh looked like a different man in the playoff, so did his opponents. Leonard and DiMarco, two of the shorter hitters on tour, failed to reach the wickedly long 248-yard, par-3 17th. Singh, meanwhile, carved a 3-iron to six feet, maintaining the dominant tone he established on the 10th tee box. And despite missing the putt, he took his one-stroke lead to the 18th and calmly hit a 3-wood and then a 5-wood to 40 feet, while his two playing partners never threatened a birdie putt.

Singh lagged his approach putt to a foot and elected to tap in for the win before his opponents even attempted their much longer par putts.

“I wanted to win one again, one major again, and it came at the right time,” said Singh, who adds a second PGA Championship (also 1998) to his green jacket (2000 Masters). “This makes my year right here.”

What might complete Singh’s season would be passing Woods at next week’s NEC Invitational at Firestone. Singh is already a near-lock for PGA Tour player of the year with a tour-high five victories on the season. And over the last two seasons, he has won 10 times and one major, dwarfing Woods’ six victories and Slam slump.

“I think it’s a very fair way of assessing the ranking,” Singh said of the system that still will have Woods slightly ahead of him when today’s standings are released. “But then if look at it and say, ‘I’ve won so many times this year, why aren’t I No. 1?’”

That might be a question Singh won’t have to ask much longer.

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