SPRINGFIELD, N.J. Vijay Singh showed up without an entourage, virtually unnoticed as he walked down a road next to the practice range at Baltusrol and onto the far end of the tee box. Only when he passed a dozen players did the fans packed into the bleachers realize it was the defending PGA champion.
First came a smattering of applause, and as he got closer to his bag, the cheers grew louder until the 42-year-old Fijian had no choice but to turn, smile yes, smile and acknowledge them with a brief wave.
Then it was back to work.
Singh has won 17 times on the PGA Tour in the last three years, seven more than Tiger Woods. He beat Woods in a head-to-head pairing in the final round outside Boston last year to dethrone him as No. 1 in the world. Two weeks ago at the Buick Open, he buried Woods in a third-round pairing 63 to 70 to coast to his fourth victory of the year.
But coming into the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday, some wonder whether the public has learned to embrace him as one of the world's best player.
Not that Singh cares.
''I've done what I need to do, and I have to worry about what I feel, and not about what other people feel,'' Singh said. ''And I feel great about my game, myself, and what I have done.''
What he has done is capture three majors among his 28 victories on the PGA Tour, more than any foreign-born player in history. That alone was enough to get him elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
What makes him stand out among his peers is the way he has taken on Woods. Singh is not the first rival to do so, but he is the only one to sustain a challenge.
He ended Woods' reign atop the PGA Tour money list in 2003. Instead of slowing down, Singh won nine times last year and became the first $10 million man in golf. And even though Woods has reclaimed his spot atop golf by winning two majors, Singh is not willing to leave the stage.
''I feel right now I'm playing the best golf I've ever played,'' he said. ''To me, I'm playing a lot better this year than I've done last year. I'm more consistent than I was last year. I'm driving the ball much straighter and probably farther than I did last year. I'm on the same track.''
But the PGA Championship is a big test.
Greatness ultimately is measured by majors, and for all the tournaments Singh has won the last three years, his only Grand Slam title came last year at Whistling Straits when Justin Leonard dropped two shots over the final four holes.
Singh could join some exclusive company with a victory at Baltusrol.
It would be his third PGA Championship he also won at tree-lined Sahalee in 1998 putting him with Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win at least three times since the tournament switched to stroke play in 1958.
Nicklaus, who won the PGA five times, is the honorary chairman this year because of his two U.S. Open titles won at Baltusrol. He left the interview room as Singh walked in, and they shared some words that Singh, not surprisingly, would not reveal.
''That's between Jack and me,'' he said.
Nicklaus recalled first seeing Singh some 15 years ago on the European tour:
''I watched his guy beating balls and never heard of him,'' he said. ''I saw this beautiful golf swing, and they said, 'This guy is the hardest-working guy I've ever seen over here.' And I said, 'Well, if he's that hardworking, he's going to get somewhere.' It's just taken Vijay a while to get there.
''I don't know whether underappreciated is the word. Maybe many people just don't realize how good he really is.''
They are undisputed rivals, even if neither acknowledges it. Singh doesn't care whom he plays because he wants to beat everybody. Ask Woods about a rivalry, and he says the list is long, ticking off the names of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson.
Asked if he respected Singh, Woods shot back, ''How can you not?''
''What he's done in the game and where he's come from, he should be commended,'' Woods said. ''It's not like he was given anything. He went out and earned it.''
Singh was equally complimentary, referring to Woods as ''the best player in the golf game right now.''
''He's been like that for a while,'' Singh said. ''Gosh, if you don't have respect for what he has done, then you're not thinking right. He's been the best player, and he's proven it over and over again.''
But their relationship or lack thereof adds flavor to their competition.
They rarely speak when paired together except a courtesy exchange on the first tee and 18th green. Singh could not ignore the gallery at the Buick Open that openly rooted for Woods at the start of the third round, then grew silent when Singh delivered a quick, knockout punch.
Singh said too much is made over how he gets along with Woods.
''We don't go to dinner together,'' he said. ''I don't go to dinner with 95 percent of the guys on tour, or maybe 99 percent of the guys on tour. So why single Tiger out? I never have had a drink with Phil Mickelson. Why doesn't anyone talk about that? For that matter, Retief or whoever. Don't make a big deal out of nothing.''
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