Not So Fast

Vijay Singh sent this message at the Buick Open: Let's not anoint Tiger just yet
September 07, 2005

Statements are supposed to be made on Sundays, not Saturdays, and on the closing holes, not before the turn. But at the Buick Open, nothing went according to the script. ¶ After a majestic 11-under 61 last Friday at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, outside Flint, Mich., Tiger Woods was prepared for a weekendlong confirmation that he truly has no equal. Vijay Singh, who was leading Tiger by a shot, had other plans. Two hours into Saturday's conversation-free round with Woods--their first head-to-head meeting since last September, when Singh wrested the No. 1 ranking from Woods at the Deutsche Bank Championship--Singh loped onto the 8th green, slid in a 20-foot downhiller for birdie and walked off with a nine-stroke lead. ¶ Three bogeys by Woods had something to do with the sudden reversal, but Singh did most of the damage himself. The birdie at the 8th was his sixth of the day, and as he entered the relative privacy of the chute of trees between the green and the 9th tee, Singh's mask of impassivity cracked as he indulged himself with a small, satisfied smile. ¶ So ended, for all intents and purposes, the biggest showdown for Flint since Michael Moore confronted Roger Smith. ¶ The win was no small triumph for the No. 2--ranked player in the world. In vanquishing Woods, Singh temporarily derailed the season's main story line: Tiger's return to dominance. More important to Singh, he cashed in on his consistently superb ball striking for the first time since winning the Wachovia Championship in May. This year has been his worst with the putter since 2000. He was averaging almost 1.8 putts per greens hit in regulation, 72nd on Tour, going into the Buick, but armed with a new putter, Singh led the field at Warwick Hills with only 1.6 putts per GIR. And that was despite missing a trio of three-footers on Saturday, putts that would have pixie-dusted his 63 into a 60.

It would have taken that number to better Woods's second-round 61, which tied his career best and featured an amazing eagle-eagle-birdie-birdie stretch. The first eagle came at the par-5 13th, where, after a 356-yard drive, Woods drilled a 191-yard seven-iron to four feet. On the next hole, a 322-yard par-4, he drove his ball onto the green and watched as it winked at the hole before finally settling 11 feet beyond the cup.

The blitz reduced one of Woods's playing partners, Fred Funk, to a giddy fit of incomprehension. On the 14th fairway Funk was chuckling so hard that he could barely stand over his ball, which had finished about 50 yards short of Tiger's. "It's hard to play when you're laughing in your backswing," Funk said. "What can you say? It's Tiger's world right now."

Then came Saturday's front nine, and Friday's Dr. Jekyll was transformed into Mr. Hyde. Woods's play through the week was erratic enough--he shot rounds of 71, 61, 70 and 66--to lead observers to reassess the praise heaped on him after the British Open. There is no point in second-guessing Woods's swing changes. When he's on, he's every bit the player he was five years ago. But he is not as consistent or as complete as he was in 2000. His inaccuracy with the driver (Tour rank: 178th) too often has him struggling for par. It's no coincidence that Tiger's major-championship wins this year came at Augusta and St. Andrews, two places where accuracy off the tee is not so important. Based on his performance at the Buick, one could conclude that Woods's stock may have risen too high after the British Open, and what happened at Warwick Hills was simply a market correction.

It hasn't escaped Singh's notice that Baltusrol, site of next week's PGA Championship, is ideally suited for his game. Baltusrol is long (almost 7,400 yards) and tight (the average fairway width is less than 30 yards), and Singh is regarded as the best in the game with the driver. The trick will be keeping the putter going. "Hopefully I'll show up with the damn putter that week," Singh says.

Woods, because of his volatility, will find Baltusrol to be the most exacting test of the year in the majors. The upside is that a win there would restore the aura of invincibility he had at St. Andrews--and make it stick.

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by FRED VUICH FIRE AWAY After answering Woods's brilliant 61 with a salty 63, Singh stayed safely in the lead through the final round.
COLOR PHOTO GOOD TIGER, BAD TIGERWoods drove into trouble too often to overtake Singh.

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