Originally created 11/05/99

Singh quickly falling in love with Valderrama



SOTOGRANDE, Spain -- Valderrama Golf Club was nothing like Tiger Woods or the rest of the Americans remembered from the Ryder Cup two years ago. All Vijay Singh knew was that his round Thursday was worth savoring.

On wider fairways and slicker greens, Singh kept the ball in great position most of the day for a 4-under 67 that gave him a one-stroke lead over Jim Furyk after the first round of the final World Golf Championship event of the year.

"It's a golf course where you need to place the tee shots and iron shots precisely," Singh said. "When you play well, you like it. I liked it today."

The 67 was impressive considering the "levante" wind that swirled off the Mediterranean coast and kept low scores to a minimum. Only 11 players from the elite, 62-man field managed to break par in the American Express Championship.

Woods was not among them.

Trying to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four straight tournaments, Woods noticed a glitch in his putting stroke just in time to birdie two of the last three holes for an even-par 71.

What he left out on the course were five putts from 8 feet or less that grazed the edge of the cup and caused Woods to either scratch his head or slam his club into the soft turf as he worked out his frustration.

By the time he signed his scorecard, he sized up the situation and realized all was not lost. Of his 17 worldwide victories, Woods has led after the first round only once.

"One bad putting day in two months isn't bad," he said. "In conditions like this, even-par or better is a good round. I'm still in the ball game."

The final WGC event had a distinctive American look, even in Europe. Of the 11 players under par, eight compete on the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson and Scott Hoch, who both played well in the '97 Ryder Cup, Bob Estes, Nick Price and 46-year-old Mark James were at 69, while Jeff Maggert and Colin Montgomerie were among those at 70.

Another stroke back with Woods was Justin Leonard, whose first Ryder Cup -- he failed to win a match in '97 -- was nothing like the last one.

Valderrama was not kind to the Americans, Woods included. He was 1-3-1 in the Ryder Cup, losing a pivotal singles match to former factory worker Costantino Rocca as Europe retained the cup.

The course is slightly different this week. Perhaps the biggest difference is a gallery so small it looks more suited for the Las Vegas Invitational than for the final $5 million event -- or for a field every bit as strong as a major championship.

Despite Woods' star power and remarkable streak of a seven victories in his last 10 tournaments, only about 750 people followed him along the twisting fairways lined by cork trees at Valderrama.

"In the practice round, we played the first nine holes with about 10 people around," Woods said. "You know that's never the case in the States. It was very, very nice."

Perhaps Furyk summed up best.

"Maybe we just can't make a lot of noise between the 60 of us," he said.

Singh certainly did his part. He hit an 8-iron into 6 inches on the second hole for a birdie, and consistently left himself putts from the 8- to 12-foot range to creep into the lead.

"It's a very good test of golf," Singh said. "If you're not playing well, you can shoot a very high score here."

Sergio Garcia, carrying the hopes of Spain on his 19-year-old shoulders, struggled in the wind and wound up with a 3-over 74. Garcia is one of four European tour players who can win this week and surpass Montgomerie on the money list.

Garcia didn't throw any shoes like he did in the World Match Play Championship last month, but he got so frustrated by one iron shot that he yanked up the front of his shirt.

"I was not myself today," he said. "It's not that I want to play with more or less wind. The only thing I want to do is play better. That's it."

Also at 74 was Davis Love III, who decided at the last minute to come to Spain with hopes of winning for the first time this year. He must have wondered Thursday why he bothered, hitting only five greens and six fairways in regulation.

"Not a good combination," Love said.

Singh had the right idea, giving himself birdie putts on all but two holes. He has played enough times at Valderrama, where the Volvo Masters is regularly staged, to understand that tee shots must be placed away from the cork trees, and approach shots below the hole.

"That's what I remember about the golf course," he said.

If Woods can only remember to play like he has since the middle of May, the result could be a $6 million year on the PGA Tour.

The only problem was the putting, which wasn't helped by the spike marks increased late in the day and caused medium-length putts to weave toward the hole. Woods missed only two fairways, got caught behind only one cork tree, but failed to make the most out of his birdie chances.

Still, Woods figures to be a factor over the next three days. Then again, he's not the only player with eyes on the $1 million prize.

Singh can be dangerous when he is rolling his putts well, which certainly was the case Thursday. And no one has had as much success at Valderrama as Montgomerie, who was pleased with his 70.

"I'm glad to get in at 1-under and we can build from that," he said. "You can only lose today. A few people have lost it today. I'm not one of them, which is key."