Singh keeps lead

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005

KAPALUA, Maui — Vijay Singh heard cheers at every corner Saturday in the Mercedes Championships, and all he could muster were mostly pars. He finally answered with one shot that salvaged the day.

Singh hit a 5-wood from 248 yards within 10 feet on the par-5 15th for an eagle, allowing him to shoot a 4-under 69 and hold off Jonathan Kaye and Ernie Els heading into the final round of the season-opening tournament.

''It came out absolutely perfect,'' Singh said. ''I couldn't hit it any better.''

He was at 19-under 200, in good shape to become the first wire-to-wire winner of the winners-only Mercedes Championships since it moved to Kapalua in 1999.

Kaye birdied six of his final eight holes for a 66 and was at 201, while Els finally got out of a funk from a bad bogey at No. 9 to shoot a 68, leaving him two shots behind.

Still, it all comes down to Singh.

Coming off a nine-win season, the 41-year-old Fijian can make an early statement about his No. 1 ranking with a victory Sunday in what is expected to be wet, windy weather. Singh has won the last 11 times when he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, dating to the 2001 MCI Classic.

''He's on a roll like probably only two or three guys in history have ever been on,'' said Stewart Cink, who shot a 67 and was three strokes behind. ''He's going to be tough to catch. I don't even know what he is (under par) right now, but I'm sure we can wait five minutes and it will be one better.''

Not quite.

Singh had 15 pars — his other two holes were a simple up-and-down birdie on No. 9 and a wedge to 2 feet on No. 6 — and realized he wasted a good chance to expand his lead.

''It's a disappointing 4 under, but I'll take it,'' he said. ''I'm still in the lead.''

Tiger Woods threw three shots away late in his round — a 2-iron into the waist-high weeds on No. 15 that he never found, and a driver off the 17th hole that went 370 yards, through the fairway, the rough and into the hazard.

''The book says it's 370 yards to the hazard,'' Woods said. ''I didn't think I could hit it that far.''

He wound up with a 69 and was five shots behind.

Defending champion Stuart Appleby, who opened with a 74, got into the hunt with rounds of 64-66 and was four shots behind along with Mike Weir (71).

It was shaping up to a dynamic conclusion along the rugged coast of Maui, and an intriguing start to the year.

Six players were within five shots of Singh on a course where, as the third round proved, anyone can get it going and one hole can change things in a hurry.

But there is a change in the wind.

A spectacular day on Maui is expected to give way to heavy rain and Kona wind from the opposite direction, making the Plantation play its toughest.

Starting times were moved up some five hours for the final round.

''Quite a few guys can come into it,'' Els said. ''I'm happy to be in the final group.''

Kaye played with Singh in the opening round, with Woods on Friday and spent the third round with Els, a good chance for him to see how his game stacks up with the Big Three.

''It's stacking up all right,'' Kaye said.

He finished with a flurry, starting with an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 11 and making all of his closing birdies from inside that range. Kaye is the only player among the top seven ranked out of the top 15, but he looks as though he's capable of winning at Kapalua.

''It would be great to this opener,'' he said. ''You could take the rest of the year off.''

Els wasn't the least bit daunted seeing Singh atop the leaderboard through two rounds, and he showed why. He started out with a couple of 20-foot birdie putts, then stuffed a wedge inside 4 feet on the third for his third straight birdie to tie Singh.

And when the Big Easy two-putted for birdie on the par-5 fifth — with Singh making nothing but pars behind him — Els had the lead to himself and was cruising right along.

But all that work came undone on one hole.

He pulled his approach into an awkward lie in the bunker on the par-5 ninth and took two shots to get out, making bogey on one of the easiest holes at Kapalua. That was like giving two shots to the field, and Singh came through with a chip to 4 feet for birdie to restore his two-stroke margin.

''Believe me, any time you make a 6 on a par 5, it gets you,'' Els said. ''I don't care who you are.''

Woods, meanwhile, had a meltdown after more putting problems. He missed from 10 feet on No. 3 and cursed, from 8 feet on No. 4 and pursed his lips, then compounded matters with a three-putt par from 35 feet on the fifth. When his 10-foot birdie on the next hole turned away, Woods came undone.

Holding his putter by its head, he took a full swing into the side of his bag — forward, then backward. He ripped off the cover of his driver and threw that to the ground. And after a big tee shot, he smacked his driver into the cart path.

But he managed to stay close to the leaders until his two mistakes at the end.

And that's one thing that has set Singh apart this week. He isn't making every putt, but he isn't making any mistakes. The only player without a bogey at Kapalua this week, Singh needs only one more round — likely in wet conditions — to start the new year like nothing ever changed.

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