Originally created 04/28/04

Consistent Singh closing on Woods



With two victories and six top 10s, Vijay Singh's record is virtually the same as it was a year ago.

But there is something vastly different about the way he is perceived.

The 41-year-old Fijian is no longer simply a solid player reaping the fruits of his incredible labor, rather a legitimate threat to Tiger Woods. And the biggest difference of all is the increasingly smaller margin between No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.

Singh's methodical victory at the rain-delayed Houston Open was his second of the PGA Tour season and the fourth in his past 16 tournaments, moving him within 2.58 points of Woods in the world ranking released Tuesday.

In October, Singh said he would give himself five good years to see if he could overtake Woods.

At this rate, it could happen in five months.

"If I keep playing like I did this weekend, I think I have a very good chance," Singh said after a 69-68 finish at Redstone Golf Club for a two-shot victory over Scott Hoch.

Not many would have picked Singh as the guy most likely to challenge Woods.

A year ago, Singh was among a half-dozen guys who got off to a good start. In his first 11 tournaments, Singh won in Phoenix and Dallas, had six top 10s, missed one cut and tied for sixth in the Masters Tournament. Throw out the cut and his average finish was 10th.

This year is a carbon copy.

Singh has won twice in 11 starts, has six top 10s, one missed cut and tied for sixth at Augusta National Golf Club. Throw out the cut, and his average finish is 11th.

Why the change in perception?

As others around him - Mike Weir, Ernie Els, Davis Love III and Woods - peeled off, Singh barreled through the year on a mission. He set the bar high and scaled it with ease, reeling off eight top 10s to close out the season, including two victories, two runner-up finishes and nothing worse than a tie for sixth.

He said he wanted to win the money title and he did, ending Woods' four-year reign.

"He's an excellent player, one of our best," Hoch said. "Last year, he was playing better than anybody when the season was over."

No one can doubt the gap is shrinking. The 2.58 points separating Singh from Woods is still significant, but it is the smallest margin since the ranking system was tweaked 20 months ago.

The question is whether Els, Singh and Phil Mickelson are getting better - or if Woods is getting worse.

The answer lies somewhere in between.

Woods successfully defended his title at the Match Play Championship, a testament to his mind and his grit to survive six matches in five days. But in five other PGA Tour events he has played this year, Woods has fared worse than he did in 2003. Going for a fifth straight win at Bay Hill, he tied for 46th. Trying to prove that his game is not far off, he tied for 22nd at the Masters, his lowest finish at Augusta National as a pro.

Mickelson is the only other two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, and he gets bonus points for winning the Masters with 31 on the back nine and five birdies over his final seven holes.

Els has won twice around the world: a repeat playoff victory at the Sony Open in Honolulu, and a career-best 60 at Royal Melbourne, one of the classiest courses in the world, while winning the Heineken Classic.

Still, no player has more closely resembled Woods than Singh.

No one is ever surprised to see him contending on the weekend. Even when Singh is seemingly out of contention, his name somehow winds up on the leaderboard Sunday afternoon. And give him a 54-hole lead, and he is more likely to have brunch with the media than allow someone else to win.

The Houston Open was the sixth consecutive time he has won with at least a share of the 54-hole lead.

How long he can keep this up remains to be seen, although the secret to his longevity was evident Monday afternoon after collecting his 17th career victory. Walking off the 18th green, Singh smiled broadly and gave a bear hug to his trainer, Joey Diovisalvi, whom he calls the backbone of his success.

"He's pushed me so hard the last two years," Singh said earlier this season. "He's in the gym with me in the mornings and in the evenings, every day, two times a day, five or six days a week."

Singh believes he can compete at this level for at least five more years. The future has never seemed so close, and the stretch of golf leading into the U.S. Open could go a long way toward defining the size of the gap.

Woods is expected to play next week in the Wachovia Championship, which features a $5.6 million purse and a field that includes Singh and Mickelson. All three, along with Els, plan to be at the Byron Nelson Classic to compete for a $5.8 million purse and ranking points exceeded only by the majors.

Woods keeps insisting his game is not that far off, and he might be right. His game should not be judged on one month.

There are no such questions about Singh.

By now, everyone knows what to expect from him.