Sony Open

World’s top golfer
‘breathing again’

Vijay Singh says his victory at the
Sony Open in Hawaii was a relief

The procession of interviews was almost over and Vijay Singh was in no hurry. He had the Pacific Ocean on his left, the Sony Open trophy on a table to his right and a load lifted from his broad shoulders.

He had never won this early in the season. The timing could not have been better.

"This is what I needed," Singh said after playing mistake-free on Sunday at Waialae Country Club, hitting a clutch drive to set up a routine birdie on the 18th hole for a one-shot victory over Ernie Els.

Even though he is No. 1 in the world and on top of his game, Singh was tense about the 2005 season.

He was coming off a year in which he became only the sixth man in PGA Tour history to win at least nine times. His earnings of nearly $11 million shattered the tour record.

He faced a different kind of pressure -- the encore.

And in his first tournament of the year, Singh blew a 54-hole lead for the first time since 2001. He was poised to win the Mercedes Championships until he hooked a tee shot into the waist-high grass at Kapalua and made triple bogey, ultimately costing him a chance to win.

Then he showed up at the Sony Open, a tournament where he has never finished better than eighth.

"Everybody thinks, 'Is he going to win again? Is he going to win again?' I missed an opportunity last week that could actually work against me if I do that," Singh said. "I think this is going to help. This is a great relief. I can start breathing again and go play more comfortable for the rest of the season.

"I'm looking forward to the rest of it."

That wasn't the case earlier in the week at Waialae. Singh looked like he was simply going through the motions, trading birdies or sloppy bogeys, shooting even par on the back nine of his second round.

His focus was gone when he walked up the fourth green and said to a television reporter, "This game is crazy. I don't understand it."

But then came a stellar recovery from deep in the left rough on No. 5 when his lofted pitch barely cleared the bunker and stopped 4 feet from the pin for par. And he closed out the round with a 40-foot eagle putt that dropped into the cup on its last turn.

Suddenly, he was 3 under par, just five shots from the lead.

And when he teed off Sunday afternoon in blustery conditions, there were only five players between Singh and the lead. He knew none of them would be able to run away from him as long as he eliminated the mistakes.

All it took was one burst to get his name atop the leaderboard.

First came a 314-yard drive on the easy par-5 ninth to set up a two-putt birdie. Then came a brilliant shot out of bunker on No. 10. Singh was only 35 yards from the green, but he had a coconut tree blocking the pin and managed to squeeze his shot around it to within 18 feet, making the putt.

He took dead aim at the flag on the par-3 11th, a 7-iron some 8 feet to the right for another birdie that put him at 10 under par, just one shot behind.

And then came the roar.

Singh had seen Ernie Els at 8 under and knew the 35-year-old South African was on the par-5 18th. The massive cheers that he heard from two fairways away told him that Els had made birdie to finish off a record-tying 62 at Waialae, and enabled the Big Easy to post a score at 10 under.

All Singh had to do was make no mistakes and one birdie.

Singh hit every fairway and every green. And he saved his best drive for the last on the 551-yard 18th, a difficult drive for him because Singh has trouble with a draw. This one was perfect, a 300-yard drive that left him only a utility club to the green. He had to two-putt from 30 feet and just off the green for birdie to cap off his 65 and a one-shot victory, the 25th of his career.

More importantly, it was the first of the year.

"I want to go out there and win golf tournaments, and this is a relief now that I've already won one," he said. "I can relax and go out and play. If I had not won one -- like I let one go last week -- I would be tensing up as the weeks go by. But this is a big load off my back."

And suddenly, the outlook on his year smelled as good as the Hawaiian flowers around his neck.

"I think it's going to be a great year," he said.

The next challenge comes this week at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, a course that would seem to suit Singh well because it favors big hitters.

But he missed the cut last year -- his only weekend off all year -- and had to withdraw in 2003 when he spent so much time on the range that he injured his ribs.

"I know next week is going to be a big field, and that the golf course has not been the best for me," Singh said. "But I'm going to go out there and fix that."

That's what Singh does best.

Give him a new challenge, and he always seems to respond.

"He's on top of his game right now," Els said. "He's swinging well and he's doing everything really good. He's got a lot of confidence. A guy like that, with all of that talent, he's not going to go away."

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