Never give a great player a second life. It's an axiom as old as golf, and Vijay Singh demonstrated its truth at the PGA Championship, with more than a little help from Justin Leonard. � On Sunday at windblown Whistling Straits, a wondrous piece of sculpted earth some 60 miles south of Green Bay, Singh pulled off an overtime comeback so improbable it would have made Brett Favre blush, and in doing so affirmed that he is golf's dominant player. Leading his playing partner, Leonard, by a stroke at the start of the day, Singh hit the ball all over Wisconsin and putted with the delicacy of a linebacker, failing to make a single birdie on his way to a 76. This stunning collapse would have gone down as a career nadir were it not for Leonard's agonizing inability to close out Singh.
For most of his career the tough little Texan has been known as one of golf's great clutch putters, thanks in part to the epic 45-footer that all but wrapped up the 1999 Ryder Cup. But Leonard, 32, is no longer that same fearless kid who won in the British Open in 1997 and seemed destined to be the Trevino to Tiger Woods's Nicklaus--an imaginative shotmaker who would routinely steal majors from his more overpowering rival. Coming into this PGA, Leonard was suffering through the worst year of his career, and his confidence was so low that last month he called a sports psychologist, Gio Valenti, looking for answers. Appealing to his new client's analytical bent two weeks ago at the International, Valenti gave Leonard a PowerPoint presentation that included an explanation of the physiological effects of pressure, such as how the release of the hormone norepinephrine can restrict capillaries in the hands, tightening grip pressure.
Thus loosened up, Leonard played his most inspired golf in years at Whistling Straits, but as he admitted on the eve of the final round, "I haven't been on a stage this big in a long time." On Sunday he struck the ball admirably but couldn't control his capillaries on the greens, especially down the stretch. On the 15th hole Leonard failed to convert a 12-foot birdie putt that would have put him three up with three to go. On the 16th he missed a five-footer for par, allowing a steadying Singh to inch within one stroke. Leonard was still one up on the 72nd hole and had a 10foot par putt for the championship, but he played too much break, giving Singh and Chris DiMarco, who was in the clubhouse at eight under, new life in the form of a three-hole playoff.
"He should have put my man away when he had the chance," Singh's caddie, Dave Renwick, would say afterward.
DiMarco was an accidental tourist in Sunday's drama. A gritty player who had started the day at seven-under, five strokes behind Singh, DiMarco was primarily concerned with finishing in the top eight, which would clinch his spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. (The PGA was the final tournament for qualifying.) DiMarco shot up the leader board with a burst of three birdies in four holes midway through his round, but he didn't realize he had a chance to win the tournament until he parred the 71st hole. He would have been better off not knowing. Admittedly nervous, he left a 15-foot birdie putt a few inches short on 18.
The playoff was defined by two fearless swings, both by Singh. He is a fan of Zen Golf,an instructional book by Joseph Parent, and during the playoff, for the first time all day, his mind was "clear," Singh would say afterward. "I saw the shots so well, and I hit the shots I wanted to hit." While Leonard and DiMarco played conservatively on the first playoff hole, the 361-yard par-4 10th, using fairway metals off the tee, Singh ripped a driver to just short of the green, and with a deft chip he nabbed his first birdie of the day and a key one-stroke advantage over his competitors.
On the next hole, the devilish 236-yard par-3 17th, whose green is perched on the edge of Lake Michigan, Singh rifled an instantly classic three-iron through the breeze to within six feet. Renwick, who has now been on the bag during five major wins by three players, called it "one of the greatest shots in major championship history. Of course, it would have been better if he made the putt." Still, even after failing to cash in with a birdie, Singh was one up going to the final hole, the 500-yard par-4 18th, where only six birdies had been made all day. With a bloodless fairway-and-green par he snuffed out Leonard and DiMarco.
Asked afterward if it was his ugliest win ever, Singh said, "It's the prettiest one, I think. I just hung in there. I never gave up.... I think this is the biggest accomplishment I've ever had in my career."
That would include 22 international victories and now 20 on the PGA Tour, notably the 1998 PGA and the 2000 Masters. What makes this PGA triumph so momentous is that it has finally clarified golf's new world order. The computers still rank Woods No. 1. But right now--particularly in the wake of a typically erratic two-under finish at the Straits, good for 24th place--Tiger, who has now gone 10 majors without a win, is only the fourth-best player in the game. Throughout this summer there has been a lively debate about how Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson should be ranked in the first three places on that list. But the top spot is no longer in dispute. At Whistling Straits, Els, who finished a shot back at seven under, achieved the Grand Slammed, having contended at all four major championships and then failed to win any of them. A stroke back of Els, Mickelson fell short in the third straight major following his Masters breakthrough. Meanwhile, Singh's fifth victory of the year (no one else has more than two) all but assures him of his first player of the year award. The $1.125 million winner's check gave him a 2004 total of $6,938,566 and a $1.3 million lead over second-place Mickelson in the money race, which Singh won last year for the first time, ending Woods's four-year reign.
What's astonishing about Singh's run is that at age 41 he is only getting better, and hungrier. "He has the kind of desire, discipline and commitment that very few athletes have," says personal trainer Joey Diovisalvi, who works with the 6'2", 198-pound Singh for an hour and a half six days a week, whether on the road or at the 3,000-square-foot gym Singh just built at his home in Ponte Vedre Beach, Fla. "We recently started a more intense program, because he wants to go to another level. He wants to raise the bar to a height only he can reach."