ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Vijay Singh, golf’s version of a workaholic, makes his home on the range.
It is easy to find where he has been by looking for trenches that are 6 feet long and wide as the blade of a 5-iron from pounding balls for hours at a time, even if it happens to be Christmas Day.
He could not recall the last time he went so long without practice.
Then again, he couldn’t remember ever being so sick that he could see the outline of his ribs.
Singh played the Johnnie Walker Classic in India two weeks ago, returned home to Florida and spent the next four days afraid to stray too far from the bathroom. He caught the flu and a stomach virus, a nasty combination that caused him to drop 18 pounds in less than a week. It was so bad that he nearly withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“Tried to eat clean and drink bottled water, and it didn’t work,” Singh said Friday after building a two-shot lead at Bay Hill. “I got the flu and a stomach virus, so both things were not very good. I came back on Monday and just never left the bathroom for four days. It was almost a forced rest.”
The recovery has been nothing short of sensational.
One week after he finally felt strong enough to hit balls, Singh found himself atop the leaderboard going into the weekend at Bay Hill, where he is trying to become the first back-to-back winner since Tiger Woods.
“Not doing anything special,” he said after a 5-under 65. “Not doing anything too much wrong, either. Just cruising along.”
It helps that he chipped in twice, one of them for eagle on the sixth hole that gave him the outright lead. And it helps to know Bay Hill better than any course on the PGA Tour, having never missed a round since he teed it up in 1993.
More than anything, it helps to be back at full strength, or close enough.
“I was very weak,” he said. “But you start eating, and you gain it back quickly. I was pretty healthy when I went there. I was working out all year and feeling pretty strong, so I think that helped me.”
Woods looked sick every time he walked off the green.
Trying to build on a winning streak that dates to September, Woods has been frustrated by the speed of the shoddy greens and left several putts short. The result was a 68, which left him seven shots out of the lead and in a tie for 20th, a 36-hole deficit he hasn’t faced since the British Open last summer.
“I’ll have to play better and make a lot more putts than I have been,” Woods said. “I just wasn’t swinging the club very well today. And when I did put myself in position to make a putt, I didn’t make them.”
If there’s any consolation, Singh was tied for 20th and seven shots behind going into the weekend at Bay Hill last year.
But there are plenty of possibilities.
Singh was at 9-under 131 and will play in the final group Saturday with Carl Pettersson, who opened with three straight birdies on his way to a 65. Another shot behind was the group of Jim Furyk (67), Ken Duke (67) and Lee Westwood (68), who had gone 11-of-12 events finishing in the top 10 until coming over to America last week.
“There’s no reason I shouldn’t carry that form on just because the tournament is in the States,” the Englishman said.
If there was an illness for Pettersson, it was short-lived. The Swedish-born, Engish-raised, North Carolina resident felt sick to his stomach in the opening round Thursday when he chunked a wedge so badly that it traveled only about half of the 70 yards he had left to the flag. He wound up with a double bogey.
“This game is so weird,” he said. “I’ve hit every shot there is to hit, good and bad.”
He followed with lots of good ones, making four birdies to end on a positive note, opening with three birdies Friday and putting himself in the final group on the weekend with his hopes considerably higher.
As for Woods, that remains to be seen.
The greens are the same for everyone, slow and bumpy because of a worm disease, but they appear to be getting under Woods’ skin more than other players. He was afraid to charge his putts, not wanting 2 1/2 feet coming back.
After hitting a tee shot on the 16th that stopped next to a grandstand on the 17th, Woods still had a 15-foot birdie putt that rolled and wiggled and bumped and eventually slid by the hole. By this point, he only smiled.
“Runs like a fairway,” he said under a breath.
Seven shots is not impossible to make up over the final two rounds, although Woods hasn’t done that since winning the Buick Invitational a year ago at Torrey Pines.
He’ll need some help from the big Fijian to do it this weekend.
Singh finally exorcised his demons at Bay Hill last year with a comfortable two-shot victory, giving him 31 career victories to tie Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper for most by a foreign-born player.
They’re still tied.
Singh has gone more than a year without winning, and it was only a month ago that he squandered a three-shot lead with five holes to play at Pebble Beach, losing to Steve Lowery in a playoff.
“It’s a good experience to be in that situation and throw away a tournament,” he said. “I’ve learned that you still have to focus. You’ve never won a golf tournament until you’ve made the last putt. That’s how it all started. I think I got ahead of myself. You pay the penalty and you learn from it.”