Singh Leads at Mercedes Championships

Friday, January 7th 2005, 8:58 am
By: News On 6

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) _ No one is ever sure what the first round of the PGA Tour season will bring, so Vijay Singh just wanted to make sure he finished under par and kept within range of the leaders.

After making seven birdies and missing a half-dozen other good chances, Singh wound up with a 66 at the Mercedes Championships and had a one-shot lead over Craig Parry.

A new season brought a familiar name to the top of the leaderboard Thursday at Kapalua. It was an early statement from the 41-year-old Fijian that he might have yet another chapter to write in his amazing career.

``That's the way he's been playing,'' Tiger Woods said after a 68. ``It's a continuation of it.''

Singh had said he wanted to get off to a strong start, especially coming off a season in which he won nine times and shattered the PGA Tour earnings record with nearly $11 million. He said he wanted to stake his ground, and remind the rest of his peers that he's still the man to beat.

``I'm here,'' he said with a laugh.

So is Woods. In another sign that his game is quickly rounding into form, Woods hit driver on just about every hole and was in the short grass most of the time.

A year ago, his opening tee shot sailed so far to the right on the expansive fairways of the Plantation Course that it also disappeared into waist-high weeds.

He missed the fairway again this year _ but only because it was so long (367 yards) and straight that it ran through the fairway and down a slope of thick rough. Solid from tee-to-green, Woods suffered the same problem as just about everyone else at Kapalua.

The course is so lush that extra grass means extra grain on the greens, and that makes it difficult to judge the proper pace and the right line. He missed eight birdie putts inside 18 feet.

``I've never seen them like this before, where they're this slow and this grainy,'' Woods said. ``If you look at that leaderboard, you can see the guys aren't making a bunch of putts, because there's really no wind out there and the greens are soft. You would expect at least four or five guys to be 7 under par or better.

``But it's not going to happen with greens like this. It's just too hard to make putts.''

There's still three days to see if he's right, but the leaderboard did seem to indicate that scoring wasn't that easy.

Parry was one of three players on the PGA Tour who didn't have a three-putt last year, but he took three whacks on the par-5 15th and had to settle for par, slowing his rise up the leaderboard. He finished with a 15-foot birdie and was at 67.

Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink and Jonathan Kaye joined Woods at 68. Eight players were another shot behind, including Ernie Els, Steve Flesch, Chad Campbell and Adam Scott.

``Like everyone else, probably a little struggling on the greens because of the strength of grain,'' Flesch said. ``The greens roll great, but it's just a wiry grass that we are not accustomed to much.''

What everyone is accustomed to seeing is Singh's name atop the leaderboard.

It took him a while to get there Thursday on a gorgeous day along the rugged coastline, where waves crashed into the rocks and left a white spray against the Pacific blue backdrop.

He missed a 12-foot putt on the par-5 ninth and made the turn at 2 under, four shots out of the lead. Then came a sand wedge into 6 feet for birdie, and an 8-iron into 4 feet for birdie, and another sand wedge to 6 feet for birdie.

Woods also was making a move and was tied for Singh along the back nine, but he kept putting the ball in tough spots on the green, even though the length was rarely more than 15 feet.

Singh took the lead for good with an 8-foot birdie on the 16th hole, and even a wasted opportunity on the par-5 18th didn't ruin his day.

``You want to start the year off strong, and this is a great week to start,'' he said. ``This is a huge tournament. All of the winners are here. It's a good one to win, and I haven't done it yet. And that's my intention, to go out there, play solid and see if I can win.''

The only surprise was that no one shot a better score.

``It's only the first day,'' Singh said. ``You can't be too concerned about the leaderboard. At the same time, you make sure you keep up the pace.''

Singh set the pace last year, and he looked intent on keep his position at No. 1 in the world.