ATLANTA - Vijay Singh offered hope for everyone Wednesday, but only briefly.
He showed up on the range at East Lake Golf Club and started hitting a few shots with an iron, then a 3-wood. The swing was as fluid as ever, but the shots were not quite as crisp. A few were weak fades, one of them a sharp hook.
Then again, the clubs came from the bag of left-hander Steve Flesch.
Having the 41-year-old Fijian swing from the opposite side might be the only way to make it a fair fight when the season-ending Tour Championship begins Thursday.
Singh will try to win for the 10th time this year, the most since Sam Snead won 11 times in 1950.
No one in the 31-man field has a better record at East Lake. Singh lost in a playoff in 1998, played in the final group in 2000 before finishing third, and won by two shots in 2002.
Scariest of all, Singh is coming off a five-shot victory last week at Innisbrook. It was his sixth victory in his last eight starts on the PGA Tour.
"The whole year has been good," Singh said. "You don't really wake up one day and think you're going to be able to play like I did this year. It's a buildup to it. You win one, and then you win another one. You get more confident, like snowballing. You can't wait for the next hole. That's how it's been."
Perhaps the best way to measure his dominance is by looking at the top 31 players on the money list who qualified for the Tour Championship.
Singh has won nine times on the PGA Tour. The other 30 players have combined to win 25.
"It's been sensational. There's no other way to describe," Masters champion Phil Mickelson said. "It's very hard to differentiate yourself from those one or two shots that will get you a victory, as opposed to second place. It's been amazing. It's been very similar to the way Tiger won almost everything in 2000."
There are some similarities to that year.
Woods reached his ninth victory of 2000 by winning the Canadian Open in early September. He came close to reaching 10 wins at Disney until Duffy Waldorf shot 62 in the final round (Ryan Palmer shot 62 this year to win Disney, with Singh finishing second).
Woods also had a great chance at East Lake. He was paired with Singh in the final round of the 2000 Tour Championship, but both were beaten by Mickelson. The only difference is that Woods had one final tournament that year to reach No. 10, missing out when Mike Weir won the American Express at Valderrama.
This is Singh's only opportunity to reach double digits.
"I'm just looking forward to starting on Thursday and seeing if I can reach there," Singh said. "If I don't, it's fine. If not, I'll take nine."
Woods is trying to get to two.
His only victory this year came at the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa, and even Woods concedes he probably would not have won that week if the format had been stroke play.
He has had seven other finishes in the top five, but Woods used to convert those chances into trophies. That explains why he has slipped to No. 3 in the world behind Singh and Ernie Els, and No. 4 on the money list.
Woods has been working with a new swing coach, Hank Haney, and insists his game is close, one reason he decided to end his honeymoon in the Caribbean and play in the Tour Championship.
"I thought I had a chance to come back and do some pretty good things," Woods said.
The atmosphere is much different than Champions Golf Club in Houston last year. The Tour Championship was supposed to go a long way toward determining whether Woods (five victories) or Singh (four victories, No. 1 on the money list) would be the PGA Tour player of the year.
Instead, Chad Campbell shot a 61 in the third round and held on for a three-shot victory.
This time, it's no contest. All the awards belong to Singh.
The Tour Championship is back to being a celebration of one man's year - only this time it's Singh, not Woods. And for everyone else, this is like a season-ending All-Star Game with free money for all.
Mickelson concedes that he hasn't played much golf after his great run through the majors, and he hasn't played very well in the four tournaments he entered after the PGA Championship.
"In all honesty, I don't expect to play well," Mickelson said. "I don't enter with high expectations. But again, I've played well here in the past, and you just never know."
Eleven players have not won this year, and this is the last chance to qualify for the winners-only Mercedes Championships that kicks off the 2005 season at Kapalua. That list includes Davis Love III, Scott Verplank, Kenny Perry and Jay Haas, who hasn't won in 11 years.
The field has 31 players because Padraig Harrington of Ireland was added. Although he is not a PGA Tour member, he has earned enough money - about $2.2 million - to finish the year inside the top 30.
Singh is assured of finishing No. 1. His lead on the money list over Mickelson is almost equal to the $6 million purse at East Lake. He just wants to finish off the year with a bang.
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