Singh looks Masters ready at Bay Hill

Singh had played, but never won, the event every year since 1993, when Palmer gave him an exemption.
Chris Condon/PGA Tour/

You’ve seen golf’s most determined man win this way before. There he was, three shots back going into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club in Orlando, but he was clearly the classiest of the contenders since he had already won once this year as well as 18 other times in the past four-plus seasons. We’re so used to seeing him win that it’s more of a shock when he doesn’t.

He used the same time-honored routine, breaking out of the pack with three birdies on the first six holes and shooting a four-under 31 on the front side. There was a magical chip-in for birdie on the 2nd hole because, as you know, his short game is a match for anyone’s. There
was the raw-power birdie on the only par-5 on the front, the 558-yard 6th that wraps dangerously around a lake. He easily reached in two with a four-iron. There was the narrow 8th, where he blasted a drive 309 yards down the middle and stuffed a short iron to five feet. And finally, at the dreaded 467-yard 9th, there was the demoralizing 20-footer he ran in for birdie.

On the way home, there was the miraculous recovery shot after a driver-driver combo (Big Play, G32) at the par-5 12th left him in the trees. He deftly pitched on through an opening in the branches and sank another slick 20-footer for birdie. Finally there was the signature deal-closer at the 15th. He dropped the hammer by cutting the dogleg with a 310-yard drive, spinning a half wedge to within 18 inches of the cup. The shot was more than a birdie. It was a statement.

Yes, he’s intimidating, a marvel really, an amazing physical specimen who is going where no man has gone before. He looked tall and powerful in the winner’s blue blazer. He flashed that easy smile and exuded the air of a champion. You’d recognize him anywhere. And he isn’t Tiger Woods.

No, your 2007 Arnold Palmer Invitational winner is Vijay Singh, whose steely performance came straight from the pages of the Tiger Woods playbook, right down to the part about stepping on necks.

Singh has been quite a story this year, with two wins before April. That gives him 31 for his career — one more than Phil Mickelson — and 19 since turning 40 in 2003. (Singh broke Sam Snead’s record for most wins by a player older than 40 in January at the Mercedes-Benz Championship.) Refocused after a quiet 2006, in which he had one victory and finished fourth on the money list, and rededicated to concentrating on the little things that make his swing work (pull down with the left hand, fire the hips), he seems ready to resume his gold rush. “This gives me belief that I can keep winning,” Singh says. “That’s a belief you want.”

Singh was in full character at Bay Hill, but there’s no way he’ll be the story of the year. Not when he’s living in Tiger’s world.

Last week Woods had a stunning final-round meltdown. On Sunday he shot an eight-over 43 on the back nine — his worst nine-hole score since the second round of the 1996 Tour Championship, which was the day after his father, Earl, had been hospitalized and Tiger stayed with him all night. That 43 was understandable. This one was unexpected. It looked like an Albert Pujols line in a box score: two doubles and a triple. Or like a winning poker hand: Tiger’s straight had every score from 3 through 7.

The backbreaker came at the 11th, where he had to chop it back to the fairway after an errant drive, then wedge on before three-putting from 20 feet — the penultimate stroke, from four feet, completely missing the hole. To cap a bleak day, he flared an iron into the water on the par-3 17th for a double bogey and another into the drink at 18 for a triple.

Woods barely resembled the player who shot a nearly flawless six-under 64 in the first round, a score that had some observers conceding him a fifth Bay Hill title. On Thursday, Woods hit 17 greens in regulation. Eighteen, actually, but his ball stayed on only 17 of them: At the 18th his approach spun back into the rocks lining the water hazard. Still, initially the week had all the makings of a YATV — Yet Another Tiger Victory. “I controlled my flight all day,” he said after the 64. “I missed a couple of putts early, but after that I rolled my ball really well.”

Usually, when Tiger is putting well, that means lights out for the competition. Plus he was relaxed, no doubt because he was playing only a few miles from his house in Isleworth. His postround chat with writers was a rare moment when he dropped his guard and was himself, pleasant and playful. He joked about using pal Mark O’Meara’s backup putter in 1998. “Mark gives me — well, I’ll say crap — all the time about how he won the ’98 British Open and I finished a shot back. That’s why it was his backup,” Woods said, drawing laughter. He got more when he proclaimed that his 64 was his best round of the year, adding, “I haven’t played that many rounds, so….”

When asked about his travel plans, Woods confirmed that he wouldn’t be making any more international trips this year — British Open excluded. “Obviously, we have a lot of new things happening starting in July,” he said, “and I want to be around for that.” His eyes brightened, his smile widened, and he all but glowed as he answered. He and his wife, Elin, are expecting their first child in early July. If there was any doubt whether Tiger is ready to be a dad, this rare glimpse of anticipation erased it.

Then the bottom fell out. After struggling to a 73 in the second round, he said, “I hit some of the worst god-awful shots you’ve ever seen in your life. It was pathetic.”

He cobbled together a tee-to-green game in the third round but, in his own words, “couldn’t buy a putt” and shot an even-par 70 that left him five strokes behind the leader, Vaughn Taylor. He raced up the leader board with a pair of early birdies on Sunday, stalled mid-round, then uncharacteristically augered in.

Tiger’s strange week led to one conclusion: He’s rusty. Before Bay Hill, Woods had played only 11 competitive rounds in 2007 — four at Torrey Pines, where he won the Buick Invitational; four in Dubai, where he tied for third; and three at the Accenture Match Play, until he was eliminated by Nick O’Hern. The momentum of the six-tournament winning streak that he carried into the season seems like a memory now.

Singh, whose eight-under 272 beat Rocco Mediate by two, looks as if he’s ready for the Masters, which is only three weeks away. “I feel as if I have my swing and my game back,” he says. “I want to win majors. I want to win tournaments. I want to win the U.S. and British Opens. Obviously, they are the hardest ones to win.”

Bay Hill was hard to win too. Singh had been a runner-up three times, the last coming in 2005 when he dunked his approach into the pond on the final hole, giving the victory to Kenny Perry. In 1994 Singh had a one-shot lead and finished bogey-bogey to lose to Loren Roberts. “After I bogeyed 16 and 17 today, I thought, Here we go again — what am I doing to myself?” Singh said on Sunday evening. “Before, when I was in contention, I either needed a par to get in the playoff or bogey, and obviously I messed up every time. It was a great feeling today. To win at Bay Hill was always one of my goals.”

At the awards ceremony on the 18th green, Singh thanked the sponsors, the tournament officials and Palmer. Then he glanced around and added, “But I hate this green. I don’t like this hole.”

The fans in the grandstands laughed. Singh was kidding about 18. As for winning more majors, he was never more serious.