- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Tiger Woods has had Vijay Singh in his side-view mirror all summer, has watched him draw closer and closer in the passing lane. And if it wasn’t Vijay, it was Ernie Els threatening to make Woods eat his dust. One of them, at some point, figured to end Tiger’s reign as the world’s top-ranked golfer — unless the latter rediscovered his once-unquenchable Thirst for First.

That point came yesterday, during a dramatic round in an otherwise meaningless tournament, the Deutsche Bank Championship. Why can’t our own Booz Allen Classic ever catch a break like that? I mean, here we have a 2-year-old event, a mere toddler, serving as the backdrop for a thrilling duel between the No.1 and No.2 players on the planet.

At the beginning of the afternoon, the No.1 guy was Woods, by the slimmest of computer margins. But by suppertime, Singh had faced him down over the final five holes to become Numero Uno — or whatever it is they call it in Fiji. After a record-setting 264-week rule, the king was dead (or at the very least, unhorsed). There was a new sheriff in town, and his name was Vijay.

Of course, it has been clear to anyone with even a vague awareness of Vince Cellini that Singh has been playing the best golf of late. In the past two years, he has 11 PGA Tour victories (to Tiger’s seven), one major title (to Tiger’s none) and 19 top-3s (to Tiger’s 15). However you want to slice it — and Tiger has been doing a fair amount of that, especially off the tee — Vijay is The Man.

For the moment, at least.

Being No. 1, after all, is a temporary gig. The wonder of Woods’ hegemony is that it lasted so long — more than five years, a veritable generation in the fast-changing world of golf. Let’s not forget: Five years ago, the No.2 golfer was David Duval, who yesterday made his first cut since last June.

Tiger is so ridiculously good, even his slumps are impressive. Since the first week of September 2002, he has competed in 38 tour events, made the cut in all of them, finished in the top 25 in all but three, and had seven wins, four seconds, four thirds and 27 top 10s. Some pretty fair country golf, you have to admit.

But Vijay has out-Tigered him — as he did down the stretch of the Deutsche Bank. They were all square yesterday after Singh bogeyed 14 to drop to 13 under. Vijay’s four-stroke cushion had vanished, and Woods was looking like he might regain his winning touch at just the right moment.

Their head-to-head match-up had been great theater until then, peaking when they took turns birdieing the ninth (Tiger), 10th (Vijay) and 12th (Tiger again). (And ABC’s decision to break away during this stretch to air a press conference about former President Clinton’s quadruple bypass only heightened the tension. What was happening in the Deutsche Bank, for goodness sakes? My kingdom for a crawler!)

But then Singh raised his game to another level, rolling in an 8-foot par-saver at 15 — while Tiger missed an almost identical putt — and posting birdies at 17 and 18 to leave the competition three shots behind. He summoned the kind of magic, in other words, that Mr. Woods used to summon, back in the good old days.

On the last green, Tiger needed a bird of his own to share second place with young Adam Scott, who made a Normanesque charge in the final round. Yes, it was quite a day for the Former No.1. Not only did he get overtaken in the rankings, he glimpsed perhaps his Next Threat … the 41-year-old Singh starts to feel his age. This Scott kid can really play. He’s already won a Players Championship and might be ready to move on to more major accomplishments.

Not to be overlooked, either, is Bill Haas, the tour rookie who made his first big splash this past weekend, tying for ninth. Woods isn’t one to look over his shoulder, but a sizable crowd is forming behind him — Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Scott, possibly even Duval if he can get his swing (and head) straightened out. It’s a jungle out there, all right. And Tiger isn’t nearly as ferocious as he was in ‘99 and 2000, when he was winning everything he could get his paws on. As Singh and others have shown, he can be had right now.

Of course, the last time Woods relinquished the No.1 ranking — for about three months in ‘99 — he proceeded to go on the biggest tear in modern golf history, including an incredible Backdoor Slam. Let me also point out that this is not a man who’s teetering on the brink of dissolution, whose game has gone Ian Baker-Finch on him. In his last 10 tournaments, he’s placed third, fourth, third, 17th, seventh, ninth, third, 24th, second and second.

He’s just missing Something — something mechanical, something spiritual or maybe both. But as he never tires of telling us, he’s getting closer all the time. Yesterday’s 69, he claimed, was “the best ball-striking round I’ve had all year.”

He followed that with the obligatory “I’m excited about how I’m playing now” quote. The folks who are really excited, though, are Tiger’s fellow golfers. They’re getting to win a few trophies for a change. And now one of them is even being allowed to sit on the No.1 throne. Memo to Vijay: Don’t get comfortable.

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