Anyone make Tiger pause?

2000 titlist Singh given best chance

April 05, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - He will either be the champion of the B flight or the player who stops Tiger Woods from completing his four-peat of majors.

Going on the premise that the 65th Masters is Woods' tournament to lose, then whose is it to win here when play begins today?

The list doesn't seem very long, though the rains that softened the greens at Augusta National the past few days and a forecast for warm, dry weather could turn pretenders into contenders as fast as you can say Joe Durant.

At the top of the list has to be defending champion Vijay Singh, whose history before last year's three-shot victory indicated he had more of a chance to miss the cut than go home with the coveted green jacket.

"I feel comfortable with myself," Singh said earlier this week. "My golf game is probably the best it has ever been. That's not only the swing part, but my putting has been the best I think for a long, long time. My short game is getting better. I've worked on bits and pieces, not the whole swing anymore."

Singh, 38, has won two overseas events this year and has been in contention in all but two of the seven PGA Tour events he has played. He hasn't shot over par in any of those 28 rounds and finished a stroke behind Woods last week in The Players Championship.

Asked about the lack of attention he has received as defending champion compared with the most recent round of Tigermania (that's Round IV if you're counting), Singh replied: "Actually, it's good in a way that the attention is somewhere else.

"Tiger has played great the last two or three years and so it should be," said Singh. "He's won the last three majors and he's coming here as the favorite. It just gives me more time to myself and to concentrate on what I'm doing. Let the pressure be on someone else."

Neither Singh nor anyone else in the field of 93 is conceding the tournament to Woods - at least not yet.

But given his back-to-back victory at Bay Hill and TPC, there is a feeling that Woods is on another of his trademark runs.

Another player high on the list of contenders, Davis Love, is still looking for his second major to back up his first, the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot.

"I think winning any of them you realize is hard," said Love, who finished second here in 1999 and 1995. "Sometimes, it takes extraordinary golf to win a major. And in the last, obviously three years, you've seen one player play extremely well in a lot of them. It's hard to get your turn when a guy is on a roll like that."

Love, 36, was on a pretty good roll earlier this year, winning the Pebble Beach AT&T and losing in a playoff the next week in the Buick Invitational. But he comes here having pulled out of Bay Hill, missing the cut at the TPC and finishing tied for 11th after a final-round 74 in the BellSouth.

"I wish I would have won a lot more," said Love, whose victory at Pebble Beach ended nearly a three-year drought. "I wish I would have won more playoffs [1-7] and I wish I would have closed the door a lot more. But in my 15 years of playing out here, there are probably 1,000 guys who would trade with me."

One of them might be Phil Mickelson, who despite winning more tournaments than Love (18-16) is still looking for that elusive first major. Mickelson has been the hottest player in the world aside from Woods the past year, having won four times last year and at this year's Buick Invitational.

Mickelson, 30, understands the label he now carries as the best player in the world never to have won a major.

"It's disappointing," he said. "I certainly thought coming out of college, after having won an event [on the PGA Tour] in college, my expectations that I would have not just one, but hopefully more. But to have none is disappointing. ... But I'm a much better player than I've ever been."

Despite beating Woods in head-to-head matchups last year, in the Buick Invitational and in the Tour Championship, Mickelson didn't sound overly confident about the prospect of him or anyone else doing it this week.

"I think that it's going to be very difficult to beat Tiger, because he seems to be able to bring out his best game when he wants to," Mickelson said.

Others considered to have a reasonable chance to win include South Africa's Ernie Els, who finished second to Singh here last year; and David Duval, who finished tied for third last year after leading during the final round, and who finished tied for second under similar circumstances in 1998.

Among the longshots for the title who, given the right playing conditions, have a chance are Denmark's Thomas Bjorn, who recently beat Woods in the Dubai Desert Classic and finished tied for second behind Woods - albeit by eight shots - in last year's British Open at St. Andrews.

"I think when he plays at his best, I don't at the moment currently think there is anybody who can challenge him," said Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, who beat Woods in the final of the World Match Play Championship last year. "But he's not always in top form."

With that shred of hope for its contenders to cling to, the 65th Masters begins today.

As usual, it's Woods' tournament to lose.

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