ORLANDO, Fla. — They said the PGA Tour was going to be different in 2007 — what with the FedEx Cup and its so-called playoffs, a couple of vanishing Tour stops and a new fall series, but we weren’t expecting this.
The Florida swing, once upon a time the place where eagles and birdies resided in numbers, turned into the U.S. Open mini-tour. Which means Doral may now be the easiest course on the Florida swing — we’ll find out for sure this week.
It was also the return of age before beauty, as veterans excelled. Mark Calcavecchia, 46, won a tournament. Rocco Mediate, 44, and Tom Lehman, 48, made a run at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which the 44-year-old Vijay Singh won yesterday for his second victory of the season. Singh finished at 8-under 272 to defeat Mediate by two shots.
And, oh yeah, Tiger Woods shot 64 in the first round, and shared the lead in a tournament he’s won four times, but he didn’t win. Not only did he not win, but he finished with a 43 on the closing nine, tying his worst nine-hole score as a professional. That is not a typographical error. Repeat, Tiger Woods shot 43 on his final nine. That included a Ken Griffey — two doubles and a triple — and a straight — every score on the last nine from 3 through, ugh, 7.
Don’t look up. Next, pigs may be flying.
Looking back, another victory by Singh isn’t really much of a shocker. He’s the ultimate poster-boy for fortysomethings. He broke Sam Snead’s record for wins by a golfer over the age of 40 with 18 when he whipped up on the (Tiger-less and Phil-less) field at the season-opening Mercedes Championships. He made it 19 Sunday at Bay Hill with the win over Mediate, the funniest golfer since Bunky Henry.
Singh is a proven phenom. In addition to his 19 wins over the age of 40, he has 31 wins for his career. How do you win 19 times in less than five years and 12 times in the previous decade? Don’t ask, he’s just done it. It’s worth noting that his performance at Bay Hill edged him ahead of Phil Mickelson, who’s got 30 in the win column. Their totals would be amazing beyond belief, of course, if only Tiger Woods (do not start calling him Mr. Forty-three unless you really, truly want to get spanked) didn’t exist. He’s got 55 in his first decade as a pro.
Here’s the really strange part. Fifteen players were within five shots of third-round leader Vaughn Taylor going into Sunday’s finale. Singh was the class of the pack, not counting Woods, who began birdie-birdie and closed to within three shots and one collective “Uh-oh!” when those scores were posted on the leaderboard. The run by Woods ended at the par-4 11th, where his 3-wood tee shot caught the thick right rough, forcing him to lay up. After he wedged onto the green, he ran his 25-foot par putt four feet past the cup. A killer bogey — no, wait. Woods didn’t even catch a piece of the cup with that comebacker. Double bogey.
He was in miracle territory after that, and when he didn’t even manage a birdie at the 12th, a par-5 where he was just off the green in two, his day was done. He earned Double Disaster Style Points, however, by flaring a tee shot into the lake at the par-3 17th and, after chipping out of the rough at the mighty 18th, dunking a shot in that lake, too. It added up to a 6-over 76. There hasn’t been a Tiger finish like that since the September when the Detroit Tigers limped home with 119 losses in 2003, and there hasn’t been a Tiger Woods finish like that, well, ever.
“Well, it was pretty tough out there,” said Ben Curtis, who finished fourth. “The greens got pretty fast. You hit a 13-footer like you were hitting a four-footer. The greens were like the U.S. Open at Shinnecock all over again — not quite that bad, but almost.”
Singh was the only player who didn’t seem fazed by the difficult scoring conditions. He shot a second-straight 3-under par 67 and a second-straight low round of the day (Mediate also put up a game 67 on Sunday). Singh managed seven birdies, and when he stiffed it at the 15th hole for a tap-in birdie, he had a three-shot lead. Playing conservatively, he made bogeys at 16 and 17, then got up and down at the 18th to get his first win at Bay Hill after three runner-up finishes, including a memorable one in 2005 when he hit his second shot into the lake at 18, giving the victory to Kenny Perry.
“I wanted to win this one, but after so many misses … it was a good feeling to be standing on 18 knowing I don’t have to make a par to win,” Singh said. “The setup of the golf course was pretty tough. It felt like a major today, with the greens hard and the long rough and the wind gusting. It felt really, really hard.
“To win at Bay Hill was always one of my goals. Each time 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. It is rewarding.”
It was also a bit of a fuzzy warm moment for the man the media think is as unfuzzy and unwarm as you can get. It was an exemption into the Bay Hill event in 1993 that helped launch his PGA Tour career. The exemption was courtesy of Palmer, of course, the tournament host.
“I played well here and in two or three other events and got my PGA Tour card,” Singh remembered. “I finished second over here that year, and that was pretty much good enough to get a Tour card. I owe it to this tournament. I think this was my starting point, so this tournament meant a lot to me, and I always play here. I love this course. It’s Arnold’s tournament. I love Arnold. It’s just a nice place to come and play.”
Warm and fuzzy with Vijay Singh?
Like I said, we weren’t expecting this.