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Singh serious about bid to be No. 1

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2004

KAPALUA, Hawaii A new PGA Tour season brought a familiar name to the top of the leaderboard.

Five strokes behind with five holes to play in the Mercedes Championships, no one counted him out least of all Stuart Appleby, the player who seemingly had a firm grip on the trophy.

''One guy you have to show massive respect to,'' is how Appleby described him.

That used to be only one player: Tiger Woods.

Nowadays, it's Vijay Singh.

All it took was his birdie putt on No. 14 for Appleby to realize the hottest player in golf was on the verge of a big rally, and Singh again was up to the task.

He birdied the next two holes, neither of them easy putts, then hit his approach right over the flag on No. 17. His 15-foot birdie putt grazed the left side of the cup, and that appeared to end his hopes of winning.

Hold on.

Needing an eagle to have any chance at a playoff, Singh rapped a 100-foot putt, and the gallery roared in anticipation as it neared the hole, turning away at the last minute. Appleby held on for a one-shot victory.

''It looked good for a long time,'' Singh said.

The same could be said for the 40-year-old Fijian.

While his putter cost him the tournament Singh needs both hands to count the number of birdie putts he missed inside 12 feet during the week the season-opening Mercedes Championships showed Singh is serious about his intentions of replacing Woods at No. 1 in the world.

''There's no reason why he can't,'' Appleby said.

Mathematically, it probably won't happen this year. Singh has played better than Woods over the last six months, but his best season on the PGA Tour (four victories) would be considered a slump for Woods.

Still, Singh is shaping up as a worthy adversary.

His runner-up finish at Kapalua was the ninth straight time Singh has finished among the top six on the PGA Tour, dating to the PGA Championship in August.

''If that's his drive and that's his goal, we've seen what he can do when he sets his mind to something,'' Appleby said. ''What I saw late last year was only typical of what I knew he could do. There's nothing surprising about it. If what he wants to do is climb and claw his way up to the top ... he's willing to sacrifice whatever he's got to do to get there.''

Singh will play three more times before Woods turns up on the PGA Tour again.

He cleaned out his locker and headed for Honolulu and the Sony Open this week. Singh is the defending champion at the Phoenix Open, then goes to Pebble Beach, a tournament where he always plays well.

Singh came up one shot short at Kapalua, although no one hit the ball better over four days in windy conditions on the Plantation course.

The only setback was a familiar problem putting.

Singh had seven three-putts over four rounds, and failed to put any pressure on Appleby over the first nine holes when he fell six shots behind and twice had three-putt bogeys.

''I played the front nine in 2 over, and you can't do that,'' Singh said. ''I had a lot of chances.''

Singh suspected that might be the case.

He switched to the belly putter the grip anchors against the lower stomach and had his best year, then started tinkering with a conventional-sized putter during the practice rounds at Kapalua.

While he has developed a classic swing that at times is flawless Singh eliminated the pull-hook, the shot that once cost him tournaments when he was in contention his putting remains a work in progress.

''Putting is always my problem,'' Singh said. ''Not a problem. I'm not a bad putter. I'm just not a great putter. Great putters win a lot more tournaments.''

Woods is a great putter.

He didn't make enough of them at Kapalua, missing a couple of them inside 4 feet. Still, his short game and course management is what separates him from the rest of the PGA Tour.

Woods, 28, already has won 39 times (eight of them majors), and his tie for fourth at the Mercedes made him the first golfer to surpass $40 million for his career.

Singh moved into second place at just over $26.4 million.

It is hard to imagine a leaderboard without Singh's name somewhere near the top on Sunday afternoon. Confidence is the most powerful drug in golf, and Singh is loaded with it.

He is No. 2 in the world, although he remains far behind Woods in the complicated, points-based system.

But just like the final five holes at Kapalua, he won't go away without putting up a fight.

And chances are, he'll be the guy Woods has to catch when the No. 1 player returns to the PGA Tour next month at the Buick Invitational.



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