Major looks a two-horse race with on-song Singh chasing Tiger's tail
Thursday 11 August 2005
There were a few reasons for shamelessly scratching off the chances of 154 proud professionals and reducing this USPGA Championship to a two-horse race, and not simply the weighty evidence of the form book which screams that the world Nos 1 and 2 are a distance clear of the rest and not merely a short-head and shoulder.
The booming necessity of the Lower Course's 7,400 yards also makes the pin stick on two names and two names only, as indeed does the need for a high ball-flight, the nerve to take on the ankle-deep rough and yes, the iron grip to get out of it.
But together with the quite hypnotic confidence of Tiger Woods which has reminded all of the phenomenon of 2000 - the year he first matched Ben Hogan's record of scooping up three of the four majors - it was the attitude of his greatest rival, rather than purely his sporting altitude, that did most to stop you from bothering to look elsewhere. Vijay Singh was belligerence personified as he first announced that "I respect Tiger" and then outlined the truths why he should not ever fear him. But then, nothing must seem beyond a golfer who has amassed more than $40m (£22.6m) in earnings after growing up on a course that also, on occasion, doubled as an airport runway in one of the world's poorest capitals, not even that wholly unique sporting practice of saying exactly what he thinks.
"I'm a player. I'm an athlete. I go out there to win tournaments and I speak my mind," he said. "I'm not a fake like many of the guys out there."
Almost as those words left his mouth he realised how they would be construed, that they would once again doubtless be seen as an offensive against the Phil Mickelson perma-smile, and he pleaded for them "not to be mixed over". But by then a thousand headlines had already been written and when he thought about it he did not care much how they would appear anyway.
"I have to worry what I feel and not what other people might feel," the 42-year-old said. "And all I know is that I feel great about my game at the moment and what I have done in golf. Just look back and see where I've come from and you'll see that there's a big difference out there."
Where he has got to, of course, includes being the defending champion here after his second Wanamaker Trophy at Whistling Straits last year, a victory he expected to start redressing the imbalance between tournaments won (50) and majors won (three). But despite finishing in the top 10 at Augusta, Pinehurst and St Andrews this term, he has yet to be close enough to Tiger's tail to give it any more than the flimsiest of tugs.
In fact, Singh has finished an aggregate of 19 shots behind Woods in these three majors, as the golfer he concedes "is the greatest in the game right now" has compiled figures that read 1-2-1 and have led the 29-year-old to the brink of the finest major season ever. In the glaring light of those statistics, therefore, Singh's task seems as thankless as all the others who were struggling yesterday to come to terms with the 500-yard par-fours and two finishing par-fives that characterise Baltusrol, but that was to ignore what happened in Michigan a fortnight ago.
At the Buick Open, Singh put on a show Tiger-like in its peerlessness as he inexorably powered to a four-shot win that was made all the sweeter by the fact that Woods was one of the unfortunates rendered helpless in his wake.
A new putter gave him the edge he had been missing and the effect has similarly sharpened his competitor's instinct. "I'm playing the best I've ever played," he said. "I've been playing pretty decent for a while but once the ball starts finding the hole... well, you know."
Baltusrol knows all right, as does Woods and the rest who are suddenly cowering in a shadow that has been made ever larger by the lanky Fijian's ominous resurgence. Of the Europeans, perhaps only Colin Montgomerie, and his second place at last month's Open, has the chutzpah to fancy his chances, but the Scot admitted yesterday that he will know if these are realistic or not when he first visits the rough and tries out his injured hand. At least Montgomerie has a ready-made excuse and that might prove a blessed luxury come Sunday night.
"Doh!" as they say in Springfield.
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