An intimidating sight: Singh in the lead at PGA

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. Whistling Straits is suddenly the least of anyone's worries. Even more daunting is Vijay Singh in control of his game and in the lead at the PGA Championship.

When his 5-foot par putt disappeared into the cup on the final hole Saturday, Singh clenched his fist and raised his putter, the most valuable club in his bag. It took him 54 holes to get the lead all to himself, and it could not have come at a better time or a better place.

''They have to play one shot better now,'' Singh said after a 3-under 69.

Flawless over the final 13 holes as a pack of contenders fell away, the 41-year-old Fijian emerged as the man to beat Saturday, taking a one-shot lead over Justin Leonard on a course that should play right into Singh's hand.

Leonard had a two-shot lead until he made bogeys on the 15th (518 yards) and the 18th (500 yards), two of the toughest par 4s on the longest course (7,514 yards) in major championship history.

Ernie Els was right there until he started hitting it into the hay, costing him precious shots over the closing holes and leaving him in a large group four shots behind that includes Masters champion Phil Mickelson.

''It will be tense out there,'' Singh said. ''I'm going to try to beat everybody in the field if I can. I'm in the best position right now to do that.''

He was at 12-under 204, poised to turn a great year into his best ever.

Singh has won the last seven tournaments when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, dating to the Houston Open two years ago. And this lead didn't happen by accident.

Ditching the belly putter for the conventional length two weeks ago when he won the Buick Open, Singh took only 25 putts in the third round and avoided bogey by lagging his long putts to tap-in range.

Leonard was at 205, giving him a third chance at winning the PGA. The former British Open champion drove into a bunker on the 15th and could not reach the green, and came up short with a 3-iron on the final hole, going into a bunker and making a nice two-putt for bogey.

''Vijay is an incredible player,'' Leonard said. ''It's going to be a fun day. I get to go head-to-head with one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world. At the same time, I have to play a Pete Dye golf course that's pretty difficult.''

It proved plenty difficult down the stretch for Els, Briny Baird and even Mickelson, although all of them are very much in contention.

Els, one of four players with at least a share of the lead at one time Saturday, narrowly missed four birdie putts on the back nine and it caught up with him when he started missing fairways.

The Big Easy had to made a great up-and-down on the 18th from some 60 yards for bogey, giving him a 72 and leaving him in a large group at 8-under 208 that included Mickelson (67), Darren Clarke (72), Stephen Ames (69) and Chris Riley (69), who is trying to sneak his way onto the Ryder Cup team.

Chris DiMarco had a 71 and was another shot behind.

Missing from the mix is Tiger Woods, which is no longer a big surprise.

Woods was poised to at least get into the picture until he lost his momentum with the click of a camera on No. 7, then failed to make birdie on the back nine for a 69. He was nine shots behind, and almost certain to end a 10th straight major without winning.

Singh cannot replace Woods at No. 1 in the world he needed Woods to miss the cut but he can put a stamp on an amazing career with a victory Sunday at Whistling Straits. It would be his 20th career victory on the PGA Tour and third major, credentials worthy of the Hall of Fame.

He can attribute it to his putter, which has held him back so many times in the majors.

Singh kept Leonard in sight with a 10-foot birdie on No. 10 and an 8-foot par save on the next hole, then pulled even on the long holes where Leonard struggled.

''I knew those last four holes would be very tough this afternoon,'' said Leonard, noting that all of them played into a slight breeze. The forecast is for slightly stronger wind in the final round.

Equally important as taking the lead, Singh had a four-shot advantage on everyone else.

''That putt on the last meant a lot,'' Singh said. ''Being four ahead of the pack, they've got to play one shot better to catch me now.''

Mickelson joined the leaders quickly, another blazing start with three birdies on his first four holes, a 40-foot par save that he called the key to his round and two more birdies to make the turn in 31, just one shot behind.

But he couldn't keep it going, three-putting the 11th from long range and picking up only one more birdie for a 67. At least he still has a chance to become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1975 to win the Masters and PGA in the same year, and he can break new ground as the first to finish in the top three at all four majors.

''The only major championship I've won is the only major I've led after 54 holes,'' Mickelson said. ''It's tough to catch up on Sunday, but it's a lot better than being six back. I'd like to be in the lead or tied, but I like it a lot better now than I did five hours ago.''

Els, a runner-up at the Masters and British Open this year, hasn't given up either on his chance to win the third leg of the career Grand Slam.

''Anything can happen on this course,'' Els said.

A lot did on a picture-perfect day at Whistling Straits:

Stuart Appleby thought he shot 68 and was still in the mix when he walked off the 18th green, but then had to take a four-shot penalty on the par-5 16th. Hitting into a bunker beyond the ropes, where the gallery had been walking, he removed some twigs and leaves (two-shot penalty) and then grounded his club (two-shot penalty).

The PGA of America said earlier in the week all bunkers would be treated as hazards.

''You talk about saving shots in a round of golf,'' he said. ''I basically could have saved four strokes by reading a piece of paper inside the locker room.''

Scott Verplank, 14th in the Ryder Cup standings, was 1 under for his round when he went to the bathroom after hitting his tee shot on No. 5. Running to catch up to his group, he stepped in a grass-covered hole and twisted his right ankle the same foot that has ailed him since the Masters and shot 77.

Baird, the leader at one point, pulled his tee shot over the cliff left of the par-3 17th. He didn't make it up the 40-foot slope, then had to play back toward the fairway some 80 feet from the flag and wound up with a triple bogey that knocked him out of contention. He wound up with a 75 and was seven shots behind.

Woods was 3 under through six holes and standing over his tee shot when a photographer inadvertently clicked his camera. Woods badly pulled his shot, and it caromed off a mound and through the green, setting up a bogey in a round where he couldn't afford any.

''I should get my focus back but I couldn't do it,'' Woods said.



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