Three Hold Lead at Tour Championship

Thursday, November 4th 2004, 7:56 pm
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ The leaves have transformed into a sparkling array of colors. There's a bit of a chill in the air. The golf season is coming to a close. Vijay Singh just loves this time of year.

While his rivals already are looking ahead to the offseason, the world's No. 1 player refuses to let up. He's still playing just like it's the middle of summer.

``For a lot of guys out here, after the PGA (Championship), they kind of slow down,'' Singh said Thursday, standing just off the 18th green after the opening round of the Tour Championship. ``My focus does not get any less after the PGA. If anything, it gets stronger.''

That's hardly encouraging news to the rest of the elite field at the season-ending Tour Championship, all given the task of denying Singh his 10th win of the year.

As usual, the Fijian is right in the thick of things, shooting a 1-under 69 on a soggy, blustery first day at East Lake Golf Club.

Despite going 15 holes without a birdie, Singh recovered from enough missed shots to finish the round just two strokes behind Darren Clarke, Jerry Kelly and 50-year-old Jay Haas _ all seeking their first win of the year.

``It was a day where you just have to manage yourself, get around, not get too far from the lead,'' Singh said. ``I'm right in there, and there's three days to go.''

At the first hole, Singh fired his approach into 2 feet for a tap-in birdie. He took bogey on the fourth hole from a fairway bunker and would have been happy with an even-par round.

But Singh rolled in a 25-footer for birdie on the 17th, and suddenly his name was where it has been all year _ near the top of the leaderboard.

With nine wins already, he's put himself in position to become the first player since 1950 to reach double digits. He's not letting up either, heading straight to the driving range after he finished his round.

``I do a lot of thinking on the driving range,'' Singh said. ``When I get on the golf course, it's all just play.''

Tiger Woods hasn't done much playing since he got married in early October. Returning from a monthlong honeymoon, he still had trouble hitting a fairway, struggling to a 72.

``A little rusty, no doubt about that,'' Woods said, assessing the state of his game. ``Not physical rust. I just made some mental mistakes where I needed to place the ball.''

Woods played alongside Ernie Els, who broke his putter while slamming an 8-iron into his bag and finished the round putting with his sand wedge. He also had a 72.

``I wasn't making putts. I figured I might as well use the sand wedge,'' Els said, smiling. ``That didn't work, either.''

The 67 was the highest score to lead the Tour Championship in the four years it has been held at East Lake. Only 13 players among the top 31 on the money list managed to break par in the season-ending event.

The scores weren't surprising.

The day began with heavy rain that turned fairways into small rivers, but a new drainage system at East Lake allowed the tournament to start on time. It dried up so well that tour officials decided to play the ball as it lies, leaving players to face several shots with mud splattered on their golf balls.

Then came the wind, whistling through the trees and making the closing holes play even tougher. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the trio in the lead had the earlier starting times.

David Toms and Zach Johnson were one stroke back at 68, while the Singh-led group at 69 also included John Daly, Mike Weir and Padraig Harrington.

A victory by Harrington would make him a PGA Tour member and send Tag Ridings _ No. 125 on the money list _ back to Q-school. It also would knock Jesper Parnevik (No. 40) out of the Masters.

Haas hasn't won in 11 years, though he wouldn't trade this season. At an age when most players join the old-timers tour, he made the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

``I'm weak, short, slow, whatever,'' Haas said. ``In the field of athletics, I would not be the favorite by any means. But there's no defense out here, so that's the good thing for me.''

Kelly might be taking the best approach to the Tour Championship. He is disgusted with failing to win this year, but figured he must have done something right to get into the top 30 on the money list.

``You're out here to win, and I've gone the last two years without a win,'' Kelly said. ``I really didn't feel like I had a good year. But accept it a little bit and enjoy the fact you're here.''

Clarke seems to thrive in the big events, having captured his two U.S. victories at the 2000 Match Play Championship and the 2003 NEC Invitational.

He desperately wants to add to that list.

``I've had a very poor year,'' he said. ``We all play to win, and I haven't managed to do that this year so far.''