Holmes, second from left, managed to make his high-school golf team -- as a third-grader.
Courtesy Holmes Family
Friday, March 05, 2010

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — At 47, Vijay Singh isn't ready to say his days as a dominant player are over.

Not even close.

Anyone in the gym at PGA National at 5 a.m. Thursday morning can attest to that.

There was Singh, three hours before his round, working out for about 60 minutes, no longer held back by knee and back pain that wrecked his 2009 season. He feels fit and strong again, both in the gym and on the course, where his Honda Classic opened with a 3-under 67 on a difficult, windy day.

Singh ended the day two shots back of leaders Nathan Green and Michael Connell.

"I hit one or two loose shots, but I got away with it and I made some nice saves," said Singh, who won the FedExCup in 2008 - but didn't even manage a top-three in 2009, the first time that's happened since 1992. "On the whole, I played really solid golf. I've practiced really hard the last two weeks and got a lot out of my game. Feeling good, seeing a lot of potential out there. Driving the ball well, putting well again. Hopefully I just keep it going."

Green's card was mistake-free, five birdies, no bogeys, and a mere 25 putts. Not bad, considering he was the other guy in a group with two major champions - Singh and Padraig Harrington.

"You don't like embarrassing yourself in front of a crowd," Green said. "It can also help you, and I think that's sort of what it did today, playing with those guys. You definitely feed off them a little bit I think, just how calm they keep themselves."

Connell was a PGA Tour rookie in 2006, making the cut in four of 22 events. He never got back on the tour until this year, got a kickstart with an eagle on the par-5 third hole, and caught Green for the lead with a birdie at the par-3 17th.

Alexandre Rocha - like Connell, a former Mississippi State player - was tied for second at 4 under with Oliver Wilson and Camilo Villegas. Singh, Bubba Watson and D.J. Trahan were all two shots back after shooting 67.

Once the world's No. 1 player, and still ranked No. 5 less than two years ago, Singh's ranking has since fallen to No. 35.

"I know I'm not supposed to be there," Singh said. "The bottom line is, you play well, it's going to be OK. If you play well, the ranking is going to fix itself."

For one day anyway, Singh looked on his way.

He hit only 8 of 14 fairways and missed three greens, but finished the day with just one bogey on his scorecard - which came on the par-4 16th, the midpoint of the three-hole famed stretch called the "Bear Trap." Singh erased that blemish quickly with a 25-footer for birdie at No. 17.

"I'm healthy and I'm beginning to feel the flow again," Singh said.

Rocha is starting to feel the flow as well, maybe for the first time in a long time.

Rocha nearly stopped playing golf last year, until two moves by the International Olympic Committee changed his mind.

And that's just one tiny part of his unbelievable story.

The world's 711th-ranked player needed to survive a pre-qualifier, then a Monday qualifier, then a playoff, just to get into the field at PGA National this week. Surprise! He's one shot off the lead, something he didn't even see coming.

"I needed a day like today like, you have no idea," Rocha said. "And it was for nobody. It's for myself."

The Honda is only his fourth PGA Tour event; the last was in 2003, and he's never made a cut. He lost his European Tour card last year and got status earlier this year on the Asian Tour, only after deciding that he wanted to continue playing golf for a living.

The IOC had much to do with that. First, they awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics to his native Brazil, then added golf to that program. Rocha - who didn't know a word of English when he arrived at Mississippi State - took those moves as signs of what he was supposed to do, so he recommitted to the game with hopes of finally making something happen.

After three straight birdies to open Thursday's round, something was happening.

And plenty of luck was on his side, too. He pulled his drive into a row of houses on the seventh hole, got a fortunate bounce off something and made par. He knocked in 30-foot par-saving putts that he was just trying to get close, saying bogey was a good score. Somehow, he never lost composure.

"I am surprised at how calm, how relaxed and how confident I felt all day," Rocha said. "That surprises me. I am not surprised about the fact that I can play proper golf. I've been working at it, and hard. And it has come out of me in the past before. I'm very satisfied with it, yes. Am I surprised to be in a good position on the leaderboard? Yes. But I wasn't shocked, you know, to see myself playing well."

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