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PGA CHAMPIONSHIP Singh earns respect, but not affection



Published: Thu, August 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Wednesday's cheers aside, the public has not yet embraced the 42-year-old.

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. (AP) -- Vijay Singh showed up without an entourage, virtually unnoticed as he walked down a road next to the practice range at Baltusrol and onto the far end of the tee box.

Only when he passed a dozen players did the fans packed into the bleachers realize it was the defending PGA champion.

First came a smattering of applause, and as he got closer to his bag, the cheers grew louder until the 42-year-old Fijian had no choice but to turn, smile -- yes, smile -- and acknowledge them with a brief wave.

Then it was back to work.

Singh has won 17 times on the PGA Tour in the last three years, seven more than Tiger Woods. He beat Woods in a head-to-head pairing in the final round outside Boston last year to dethrone him as No. 1 in the world. Two weeks ago at the Buick Open, he buried Woods in a third-round pairing -- 63 to 70 -- to coast to his fourth victory of the year.

But coming into the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday, some wonder whether the public has learned to embrace him as one of the world's best player.

Not that Singh cares.

"I've done what I need to do, and I have to worry about what I feel, and not about what other people feel," Singh said. "And I feel great about my game, myself, and what I have done."

Good career

What he has done is capture three majors among his 28 victories on the PGA Tour, more than any foreign-born player in history. That alone was enough to get him elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

What makes him stand out among his peers is the way he has taken on Woods. Singh is not the first rival to do so, but he is the only one to sustain a challenge.

He ended Woods' reign atop the PGA Tour money list in 2003. Instead of slowing down, Singh won nine times last year and became the first $10 million man in golf. And even though Woods has reclaimed his spot atop golf by winning two majors, Singh is not willing to leave the stage.

"I feel right now I'm playing the best golf I've ever played," he said. "To me, I'm playing a lot better this year than I've done last year. I'm more consistent than I was last year. I'm driving the ball much straighter and probably farther than I did last year. I'm on the same track."

But the PGA Championship is a big test.

Greatness ultimately is measured by majors, and for all the tournaments Singh has won the last three years, his only Grand Slam title came last year at Whistling Straits when Justin Leonard dropped two shots over the final four holes.

Exclusive company

Singh could join some exclusive company with a victory at Baltusrol.

It would be his third PGA Championship -- he also won at tree-lined Sahalee in 1998 -- putting him with Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win at least three times since the tournament switched to stroke play in 1958.

Nicklaus, who won the PGA five times, is the honorary chairman this year because of his two U.S. Open titles won at Baltusrol. He left the interview room as Singh walked in, and they shared some words that Singh, not surprisingly, would not reveal.

"That's between Jack and me," he said.

Nicklaus recalled first seeing Singh some 15 years ago on the European tour:

"I watched his guy beating balls and never heard of him," he said. "I saw this beautiful golf swing, and they said, 'This guy is the hardest-working guy I've ever seen over here.' And I said, 'Well, if he's that hardworking, he's going to get somewhere.' It's just taken Vijay a while to get there.

"I don't know whether underappreciated is the word. Maybe many people just don't realize how good he really is."

Woods does.

They are undisputed rivals, even if neither acknowledges it. Singh doesn't care whom he plays because he wants to beat everybody. Ask Woods about a rivalry, and he says the list is long, ticking off the names of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson.

Asked if he respected Singh, Woods shot back, "How can you not?"




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