Originally created 11/04/02

Singh secures first Tour title



ATLANTA - Once his tee shot on the final hole was in the air, Vijay Singh knew there wasn't going to be another disappointing finish in The Tour Championship for him.

Singh led going into the final round of this tournament at East Lake Golf Club in 1998 and 2000, only to lose.

On Sunday, he was assured victory when he knocked his tee shot on the green of the 18th hole, a 232-yard par-3. He led by two shots at the time.

"When I struck the ball, I didn't have to look; I knew it was going straight for the green," Singh said. "It was the best 3-iron I hit all week. It was exactly where I wanted it."

The shot nestled 28 feet from the pin. From there, Singh two-putted for par and a two-shot victory over Augusta native Charles Howell, who also made par.

Singh, who led by three shots entering the final round, closed with a 3-under-par 67 to finish at 12-under 268.

For Singh, 39, it was his 11th PGA Tour victory, including the 2000 Masters Tournament. The first-place money of $900,000 pushed his season-ending total to $3.7 million and his career earnings to more than $18 million.

Howell shot a 66, included an eagle on the par-4 13th hole, where he holed out a 115-yard sand wedge

Howell shot a 5-under-par 30 on the back nine, but never shook Singh, his playing partner, who was 3-under on the back.

"It seemed like every time I hit a good shot, especially on the back nine, he was right there to answer it," Howell said.

In 1998, Singh had a one-shot lead going to No. 18, but bogeyed it. The sudden death playoff started on No. 18 and Hal Sutton made a birdie to win. In 2000, Singh was tied for the lead after 54 holes, but shot a final-round 73 to tie for third place.

"It owed me," Singh said of the tournament at East Lake. "The last two times, I thought I was going to win it. But finally I've done it and it's really something that I'm going to cherish. I really am proud of this one."

The 23-year-old Howell, playing in his first Tour Championship, never closer than two shots of Singh.

"I knew he wasn't going to back down," Howell said. "He's just way too good of a player. If you can't win, you want to finish second. Vijay played a heck of a round. It would have taken a 63 to beat him and that's a hard score to come by."

After a slow start that saw Singh bogey his first hole and par the next seven, he reeled off birdies on Nos. 9, 10 and 11 to pull away.

"That was great play on No. 9, 10 and 11 by Vijay," said Jerry Kelly, who was within one shot after making an ace on No. 11, but finished fourth after a 67. "He knew we were coming closer. He had it in neutral for a while. He knew he had to do something and he did. That's what makes it impressive."

Singh didn't see a leader board until he reached the ninth tee.

"I saw that two people were at 6-under, but I was still at 8-under," Singh said. "I still had a two-shot lead. It's not that I lost the lead or anything. When I made birdie on No. 9 and birdied Nos. 10 and 11, I looked up and still had a three-shot lead. So I said, 'well, I'm comfortable now."'

Howell, who was 1-over on his round through 11 holes, waited too long to make his charge. After 11 holes, Singh had opened up a six-shot lead on Howell.

"I had to do something in the first three, four or five holes," Howell said. "It was just a little late."

For the round, Singh had four birdies and one bogey.

"I'm playing the best golf I've ever done," Singh said, who is working with a fitness trainer. "I'm swinging the club so much better than I did two or three years ago and I'm hitting the ball much longer. I've never hit it this long. I want to compete on the tour for the next five or six years and I think I can do that if I keep physically fit."

Howell, who lives in Orlando, Fla., was the only player in the field to break par in all four rounds (he opened with 66-69-69). He earned $540,000, giving him more than $2.7 million for the season, or ninth on the money list.

"The end of the year has been great for me," said Howell, who closed the season with 18 straight under par rounds, during which time he was 76 under par.

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.