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A Buick TUNE-UP
Gary Van Sickle
August 18, 1997
A new model Vijay Singh roared past Ernie Els at the Tour's final road test before the PGA Championship
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August 18, 1997

A Buick Tune-up

A new model Vijay Singh roared past Ernie Els at the Tour's final road test before the PGA Championship

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This sort of thing is embarrassing but not terribly unusual in the auto industry. It happens every year or so to a few models, although as far as anyone can remember, this is the first time a golf tournament has had to be recalled.

There was no choice. The 1997 Buick Open didn't roll off the assembly line exactly as planned. Nothing serious, mind you; this is merely a precautionary measure as we head to Winged Foot for the year's final major championship (but if you hear an air bag deploying, duck and cover). Here's what didn't meet the specs.

Vijay Singh of Fiji won by four shots. (Check the manual under Best Players Who Haven't Won a Major.) He won the Memorial two months ago, but a second Vijay Day was not supposed to happen here at Warwick Hills Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich. Not after Ernie Els, the guy we were about to promote to World's Best Player, had barely broken a sweat while building a three-stroke lead after 54 holes. The U.S. Open champion, looking like this summer's blockbuster hit, seemed ready to nuke the field and win another Buick (to go with the Century he was given in June for winning the Buick Classic). "I've only got room for two cars and a golf cart," Els joked after his second-round 63, which included an unlikely downhill pitch-in for eagle on the par-5 548-yard hole.

The chase was supposed to be futile. "You don't want to be behind Ernie," says two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who was among Els's pursuers. "It's no secret that Ernie's a wonderful player, probably one of the top two in the world." And the other? Strange made a face and laughed. "Don't ask stupid questions."

Yet when Els shot 72-74 on the weekend, scores that wouldn't have made the cut, and Singh shot 67-66, the Buick suddenly looked like a match race between Chris Farley and Donovan Bailey, with Singh sprinting to victory at 15 under par. "It was tough to swallow," said Els, who finished in a tie for second with five other players. "When you have a three-shot lead, you feel like you lost it, but Vijay played well. I'm very disappointed in my finish. It's a cruel game at times."

Factory reps would like to bring in the Buick and take a closer look at the way Singh wielded his putter last week. He isn't supposed to be that good on the greens. Out of desperation he used a long-shafted putter last year, and before the Buick he ranked 151st in the putting stats. At the Buick, Singh was 17th, and 'he rolled in the clinching 20-footer for birdie on the final hole with the authority of a man who knew he was going to make it before he drew back the blade. The credit goes to a Zebra putter he snatched from a club representative the night before the first round, and to Singh's wife, Ardena. "I'd been playing good all year but couldn't score," Singh says. "I went to a long putter last year and it was a roller coaster—I'd putt good one week and putt bad for five weeks. My wife finally said, 'You spend too much time on your long game and not enough on your short game.' So the last three or four weeks I've dedicated myself to my short game."

The results, in golf terms, were immediate and impressive. If Singh can keep it up, he will be a factor at Winged Foot. "It feels so good, you can't believe it," Singh says of his sudden ability to hole putts.

Our mechanics would like to look under the hood of Sonny Skinner, a guy who has gone to Q school every year since 1983 but amazed everyone with a 62 in the opening round. That's the kind of number the fans were expecting from Tiger Woods, who was making his first start since the British Open. But there was no tiger in Woods's tank as he opened with a rusty 72. He shot 31 on his first nine the next day but stalled for 68, began the third round by eagling the 1st hole but sputtered to a 70 and on Sunday closed with four birdies on the last seven holes to tie for eighth.

Although he never contended, Woods didn't consider the Buick to be a wasted week. "I'm very positive heading into the PGA," he said. "I feel like I'm ready." The $43,500 Woods won pushed his season total to $1,821,895, eclipsing the Tour record set by Tom Lehman last year. As for Skinner, he was only partly Sonny over the remaining 54 holes, which he played in nine over par to come in 59th.

The Buick's most serious defect was that it failed to clear up an increasingly muddled Ryder Cup picture. Davis Love III was supposed to clinch a spot on the team, and Fred Couples and Corey Pavin were expected to establish themselves as clear-cut wild-card choices. Love missed the cut, as did Pavin, who has slumped for the entire year. Couples was inconsistent and, at times, apathetic. The veterans who made good impressions were—yikes!—Strange, who played in the final pairing on Sunday with Els and birdied four holes while tying for second, and warhorses Payne Stewart and Lanny Wadkins, who tied for 11th.

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