The formidable final three holes at Quail Hollow Country Club are known as The Green Mile, and a well-toned Vijay Singh covered them not once, but twice May 8. It proved to be something of an unexpected bonus on a day most believed the No. 2 player in the world and everyone else would be playing for, well, No. 2.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank for young Sergio Garcia at the Wachovia Championship. His seemingly commanding six-shot Sunday lead melted away because of an insubordinate putter and a pair of gutsy final-round 66s turned in by veterans Singh and Jim Furyk. On a calm day when the breeze was so gentle it barely could sway the skinniest Carolina pine, Singh caught Garcia and then outlasted him and the gritty Furyk, his Florida neighbor, in extra holes to capture his third PGA Tour title of the season.
All three players finished 72 holes of regulation at 12-under 276. On the first extra hole, Garcia three-putted from 45 feet, missing a 6-footer for par to stay alive.
“I feel a bit disappointed that I didn’t actually finish the job,” said Garcia. “It would have been nice to win here. We’ll have to wait for another year.”
As many in the field took advantage of the most opportune scoring conditions of the week, Garcia, who surrendered his last lead when he pulled a 7-iron into the water on the 71st hole, struggled to a final-round 72 and etched his name into the Tour record books. By taking a six-shot lead into the final round and failing to close the deal, Garcia joined four others in Tour infamy, including Greg Norman, who squandered the 1996 Masters. It wasn’t the type of record he had in mind when Sunday began.
“Sometimes it’s harder to play with a big lead,” said Singh, who now has won 16 of his 27 career Tour victories since the start of 2003. “If you’re five, six up, for some reason, you don’t want to lose the golf tournament. Instead of trying to win the golf tournament, you don’t want to lose it.”
So what could have been a Sunday victory lap for Garcia evolved into one of the wildest Sundays of the season. It culminated in a playoff in which Furyk, seeking his first victory since summer 2003, and Singh traded blows the final three holes, each having a chance to put it away. Furyk missed a 10-foot birdie attempt on the second extra hole, at the par-4 16th, and Singh watched a 5-footer slide wide on the arduous par-3 17th. Finally, the steady Furyk was first to blink at the 478-yard 18th, pulling his tee shot into a creek that meanders down the left side.
Furyk dropped, pitched from heavy rough into the fairway, then encountered an untimely break. His approach from 93 yards struck the flagstick and bounded off the green. Singh made Furyk’s misfortune moot, softly blasting a long bunker shot from the right side to a foot for a tap-in par, garnering yet more crystal for his trophy room and a winner’s check for $1,080,000.
For Furyk, who played so solidly alongside Garcia in the final pairing Sunday, the close call stung. Tired of being asked how his repaired left wrist is feeling 14 months after surgery, Furyk realized a victory at Wachovia – a big-time event on a popular golf course that boasted a major field and major feel – would have provided an emphatic answer to how he’s feeling about his game. He showed his heart by pouring in a 7-foot birdie at 18 to make the playoff.
“Sometimes just getting that close and coming up short is a little worse than finishing fifth,” Furyk said.
A year ago, Singh came to Wachovia somewhat tangled in a determined quest to overtake Woods as No. 1 in the world. It would happen eventually, but only when Singh freed himself from the paralyzing consumption of seizing the top spot. Nowadays, the only perch he truly cares about is being atop the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon. At Wachovia, a month away from a U.S. Open that will be played 90 minutes down the road at Pinehurst No. 2, Singh again proved himself as the most complete player in today’s game.
“That does not cross my mind anymore,” said Singh of the No. 1 ranking. “I just want to go out there and win golf tournaments.”
After disheartening performances down the stretch at the Honda Classic (where he missed a tiddler in a playoff loss to Padraig Harrington) and Bay Hill (where, sharing the lead, he rinsed his 7-iron approach on the 72nd hole into the Devil’s Bathtub), Singh had begun to question his ability to finish.
“We sat down and had a talk, and we tried to figure out why we were losing tournaments by one shot,” said Paul Tesori, a former Tour player in his second stint on Singh’s bag. “Bay Hill was a very, very tough one to swallow. We really felt we had the momentum there. . . . He could feel the pressure building. So after Augusta we sat down for two hours and talked about some things. We needed to think a little better out there.”
Singh says his game is more rounded than it was a year ago, when he had three victories by June and six more on the horizon. Tesori said he never has seen his man hit the ball better. Regardless what any ranking reads, Singh seems to believe he’s No. 1 in the Singh Index, which is all that matters.
Perhaps by a Green Mile. And that’s not just Carolina dreamin’.