Singh avoids meltdown at PGA

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 16, 2004

The Associated Press

HAVEN, Wis. - Vijay Singh grabbed the Wanamaker Trophy with both hands and lifted it high over his head Sunday at the PGA Championship, an unlikely victory built on the kind of resiliency that defines his life.

Two shots behind with three holes to play, he was headed for another meltdown in a major championship.

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Singh knows better than anyone never to lose hope.

Exiled to Borneo as a teaching pro, later a bouncer at a Scottish nightclub to pay bills while he kept his dreams alive, he emerged to become one of the best players in the world.

Singh confirmed his status with a stunning comeback at Whistling Straits, and the most timely birdie of his career.

''I just hung in there,'' Singh said after winning a three-way playoff over fast-fading Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco. ''I never gave up. I just said, 'I'm going to make a putt sooner or later.'''

Given new life when Leonard missed a 12-foot par putt in regulation - his sixth miss inside 12 feet on the back nine - Singh made his only birdie of the day from 6 feet on the first extra hole, and Leonard and DiMarco never came close to catching him the rest of the way.

Leonard and DiMarco never had a good look at birdie in the playoff, and they stood helplessly on the 18th green as Singh tapped in from 2 feet for par for his third career major.

It was an amazing turnaround for Singh, whose life is all about second chances.

He blew up in the final round at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship last year, and the 76 he shot in regulation Sunday on a grueling course along the shores of Lake Michigan put him in the record books for the wrong reason: It was the highest final round ever by a PGA champion, and the highest in any major since Reg Whitcombe shot 78 and won the 1938 British Open at Royal St. Georges.

''It looked ugly,'' Singh said of his score. ''But it's the prettiest one, I think.''

It was a nightmare for Leonard, who squandered a chance to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team.

Playing in the final group at the PGA for the third time in eight years, he had a two-shot lead with five holes to play until his putter failed him. He missed from 6 feet for par on the 14th, 10 feet for birdie on the 15th, 5 feet for par on the 16th and 12 feet for par on the 18th, the most costly of them all.

''All I needed was one of them to go,'' said Leonard, who shot 75. ''It's pretty hard to win a tournament, much less a major, when you do something like that.''

DiMarco had an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th in regulation that he left just short. He closed with a 71, the only player in the final nine groups to break par as Whistling Straits finally lived up to its fearsome reputation.

Given new life, Singh took advantage in the three-hole playoff.

He went with a driver on the 361-yard 10th hole, nearly driving the green and leaving himself a simple pitch to 6 feet. When the putt fell, it was the first time Singh smiled all day.

''I waited all day for it, and it was a good time that it came,'' he said.

Singh then laced a 3-iron into 6 feet on the 236-yard 17th, although he missed that putt. Leonard and DiMarco needed birdie on the 18th and didn't come close - DiMarco in a bunker, Leonard so far away that he used a wedge to chip on the green. Neither finished the hole.

''This makes my year,'' Singh said. ''I think this is the biggest accomplishment I've ever had in my whole career.''

The consolation for DiMarco was a spot on the Ryder Cup team, moving to No. 8 in the standings.

Leonard now must wait to see if captain Hal Sutton considered his performance at the PGA worthy of being picked.

Singh, Leonard and DiMarco finished at 8-under 280.

Ernie Els and Chris Riley each bogeyed the last hole to finish one shot behind, enough for Riley to make his first Ryder Cup team, bumping Steve Flesch (76) and Jay Haas (77) out of the top 10.

Masters champion Phil Mickelson still had an outside chance to win his second major of the year until he missed a 15-foot birdie on the 17th and then hit into the bunker and finished with a bogey for a 74, dropping him into a tie for sixth. He needed a birdie on the 18th to become the first player to finish in the top 3 at all four majors.

''It's been a great year for me in the majors,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like I'm really onto something good, and I'm looking forward to next year. I'm sorry we have such a long way to go.''

It was a crushing year for Els, who was the runner-up in the Masters and British Open and shot 80 from the final group in the U.S. Open. He rallied too late at Whistling Straits, and a three-putt bogey from 90 feet on the last hole cost him another chance at a major.

Tiger Woods bogeyed two of the first four holes and wound up with a 73 to finish in a tie for 24th, his worst finish in the majors this year, extending his streak to 10 majors without winning. That's the longest drought of his career.

''I didn't win, and it's very disappointing,'' Woods said. ''It's not like I haven't traveled down this road before. And hopefully, it will be be the same result.''

The last time Woods lost 10 majors in a row, he won seven of the next 11.

The only thing Woods could celebrate - and he wasn't breaking out the champagne - was narrowly keeping his No. 1 ranking, breaking Greg Norman's record by being atop the world ranking for 332 weeks in his career.

Singh likely will move to No. 2 in the world and might be one tournament away from a number that will show what everyone already believes - best in the world.

His fifth victory of the year - no one else has more than two - put him atop the PGA Tour money list at more than $6.9 million, already assured of the second-highest total behind Woods' $9 million season in 2000.

Suddenly, getting to No. 1 in the world no longer looks so hard.

''I wanted a big win, and this came at the right time,'' Singh said.

Nothing was easy on Sunday, when Whistling Straits beat up the best players with a combination of stiff wind and no water on the course overnight, making it firm and hard. Plus, the longest course in major championship history was stretched to 7,536 yards by moving most pins to the back of the greens.

It wasn't a monster, but it had plenty of bite.

Mickelson found out in a hurry, taking a double bogey on the par-3 third hole when he went into a bunker, blasted across the green, chipped about 5 feet long and missed the putt. Lefty spent the rest of the day trying to catch up, a tough task as the wind got stronger.

Singh suffered the deepest gash.

Tied for the lead with Leonard after three holes, he pulled his 4-iron down the side of the hill into a bunker. With no room in the sand to plant his feet, the 6-foot-3 Singh had to stoop over to play his shot, and he couldn't quite get it up the hill, landing in another bunker on his way to a double bogey.

Leonard, suddenly equipped with a two-shot lead, managed to escape significant damage with three straight par saves that signaled this might finally be his day at the PGA Championship after near-misses at Winged Foot in 1997 and Hazeltine two years ago.

But there was a slight hitch.

Standing over a 4-footer for par on the par-3 seventh, he had a chance to take a three-shot lead when he badly pulled the putt for his first bogey. It was a sign of how the rest of the round would unfold.

Leonard twice had birdie chances to put some room between him and Singh, but a 6-footer at the 11th and a 12-footer at the 12th never came close, and he missed four putts - one of them for birdie - over the final five holes. Any of them would have been enough to win.