Singh stakes strong claim to dominate once again

Vijay Singh started a new season the way he spent much of the last one, at the top of the leaderboard after his seven-under-par 66 on Thursday gave him the first-round lead at the Mercedes Championships here.

Vijay Singh started a new season the way he spent much of the last one, at the top of the leaderboard after his seven-under-par 66 on Thursday gave him the first-round lead at the Mercedes Championships here.

Singh, who dominated in 2004 claiming nine events, over $10m (£5.3m) in prize money and the world number one ranking from Tiger Woods, underlined his intention to keep the crown with a controlled error-free display. The lanky Fijian cruised through his opening round of the new campaign without a miscue, carding seven birdies.

The Australian Craig Parry is tracking Singh after firing a six-under-par 67 with Woods and Sergio Garcia among a group of four golfers lurking a further shot behind.

South Africa's world number three, Ernie Els, also played well to finish on four-under-par after an opening round of 69. The anticipated year-long battle that many are predicting for golf supremacy needed only 18 holes to materialise, as the sport's very best traded shots in perfect conditions at the top of the leaderboard.

The élite, 31-player, winners-only field took full advantage of the benign conditions with only four golfers finishing over par. Singh began quietly with just two birdies on the front nine but scorched the back nine with birdies on five of the first seven holes to take command. Last year's US PGA champion felt he'd made the most of his winter break. "I played well today, " Singh said. "My time off is going home, thinking about my game and what I need to do to fix it."

Woods, champion here five years ago, played with a confidence that was missing at times last season. However, three consecutive pars from the 16th hole left him frustrated. "I didn't make any putts," he said. "I didn't have any [feel for the] speed [on the greens]. But I felt very good with my driver and placed the ball where I needed to place it" Garcia also felt his putter had let him down, saying: "I'm looking forward to the year. I played pretty well today - some putts didn't go in but it was a good start."

* The European Tour announced the launch of the International Relief Golf Fund for victims of the tsunami with an initial donation of £50,000.

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