You've seengolf's most determined man win this way before. There he was, three shots backgoing into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Clubin Orlando, but he was clearly the classiest of the contenders since he hadalready won once this year as well as 18 other times in the past four-plusseasons. We're so used to seeing him win that it's more of a shock when hedoesn't. ¬∂ He used the same time-honored routine, breaking out of the pack withthree birdies on the first six holes and shooting a four-under 31 on the frontside. There was a magical chip-in for birdie on the 2nd hole because, as youknow, his short game is a match for anyone's. There was the raw-power birdie onthe only par-5 on the front, the 558-yard 6th that wraps dangerously around alake. 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 tofive feet. And finally, at the dreaded 467-yard 9th, there was the demoralizing20-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 anopening in the branches and sank another slick 20-footer for birdie. Finallythere was the signature deal-closer at the 15th. He dropped the hammer bycutting the dogleg with a 310-yard drive, spinning a half wedge to within 18inches of the cup. The shot was more than a birdie. It was a statement.
Yes, he'sintimidating, a marvel really, an amazing physical specimen who is going whereno man has gone before. He looked tall and powerful in the winner's blueblazer. He flashed that easy smile and exuded the air of a champion. You'drecognize him anywhere. And he isn't Tiger Woods.
No, your 2007Arnold Palmer Invitational winner is Vijay Singh, whose steely performance camestraight from the pages of the Tiger Woods playbook, right down to the partabout stepping on necks.
Singh has beenquite a story this year, with two wins before April. That gives him 31 for hiscareer--one more than Phil Mickelson--and 19 since turning 40 in 2003. (Singhbroke Sam Snead's record for most wins by a player older than 40 in January atthe Mercedes-Benz Championship.) Refocused after a quiet 2006, in which he hadone victory and finished fourth on the money list, and rededicated toconcentrating on the little things that make his swing work (pull down with theleft hand, fire the hips), he seems ready to resume his gold rush. "Thisgives me belief that I can keep winning," Singh says. "That's a beliefyou want."
Singh was in fullcharacter at Bay Hill, but there's no way he'll be the story of the year. Notwhen he's living in Tiger's world.
Last week Woodshad a stunning final-round meltdown. On Sunday he shot an eight-over 43 on theback nine--his worst nine-hole score since the second round of the 1996 TourChampionship, which was the day after his father, Earl, had been hospitalizedand Tiger stayed with him all night. That 43 was understandable. This one wasunexpected. It looked like an Albert Pujols line in a box score: two doublesand a triple. Or like a winning poker hand: Tiger's straight had every scorefrom 3 through 7.
The backbreakercame at the 11th, where he had to chop it back to the fairway after an errantdrive, 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 aniron into the water on the par-3 17th for a double bogey and another into thedrink at 18 for a triple.
Woods barelyresembled the player who shot a nearly flawless six-under 64 in the firstround, a score that had some observers conceding him a fifth Bay Hill title. OnThursday, Woods hit 17 greens in regulation. Eighteen, actually, but his ballstayed on only 17 of them: At the 18th his approach spun back into the rockslining the water hazard. Still, initially the week had all the makings of aYATV--Yet Another Tiger Victory. "I controlled my flight all day," hesaid after the 64. "I missed a couple of putts early, but after that Irolled my ball really well."
Usually, whenTiger is putting well, that means lights out for the competition. Plus he wasrelaxed, no doubt because he was playing only a few miles from his house inIsleworth. His postround chat with writers was a rare moment when he droppedhis guard and was himself, pleasant and playful. He joked about using pal MarkO'Meara's backup putter in 1998. "Mark gives me--well, I'll say crap--allthe 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 morewhen he proclaimed that his 64 was his best round of the year, adding, "Ihaven't played that many rounds, so...."
When asked abouthis travel plans, Woods confirmed that he wouldn't be making any moreinternational trips this year--British Open excluded. "Obviously, we have alot of new things happening starting in July," he said, "and I want tobe around for that." His eyes brightened, his smile widened, and he all butglowed as he answered. He and his wife, Elin, are expecting their first childin early July. If there was any doubt whether Tiger is ready to be a dad, thisrare glimpse of anticipation erased it.
Then the bottomfell out. After struggling to a 73 in the second round, he said, "I hitsome of the worst god-awful shots you've ever seen in your life. It waspathetic."
He cobbledtogether 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 fivestrokes behind the leader, Vaughn Taylor. He raced up the leader board with apair of early birdies on Sunday, stalled mid-round, then uncharacteristicallyaugered in.
Tiger's strangeweek led to one conclusion: He's rusty. Before Bay Hill, Woods had played only11 competitive rounds in 2007--four at Torrey Pines, where he won the BuickInvitational; four in Dubai, where he tied for third; and three at theAccenture Match Play, until he was eliminated by Nick O'Hern. The momentum ofthe six-tournament winning streak that he carried into the season seems like amemory now.
Singh, whoseeight-under 272 beat Rocco Mediate by two, looks as if he's ready for theMasters, which is only three weeks away. "I feel as if I have my swing andmy game back," he says. "I want to win majors. I want to wintournaments. I want to win the U.S. and British Opens. Obviously, they are thehardest ones to win."
Bay Hill was hardto win too. Singh had been a runner-up three times, the last coming in 2005when he dunked his approach into the pond on the final hole, giving the victoryto Kenny Perry. In 1994 Singh had a one-shot lead and finished bogey-bogey tolose to Loren Roberts. "After I bogeyed 16 and 17 today, I thought, Here wego 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 theplayoff or bogey, and obviously I messed up every time. It was a great feelingtoday. To win at Bay Hill was always one of my goals."
At the awardsceremony on the 18th green, Singh thanked the sponsors, the tournamentofficials and Palmer. Then he glanced around and added, "But I hate thisgreen. I don't like this hole."
The fans in thegrandstands laughed. Singh was kidding about 18. As for winning more majors, hewas never more serious.
• Inside Golf byGary Van Sickle appears every Monday at GOLF.COM.