2002: Fine at (almost) 40

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Scottsdale, Ariz.

The last time Vijay Singh won the Phoenix Open, in 1995, he putted with his eyes closed all week. This time his lids were open but the lights were shot out nonetheless.

Riding what he termed his best putting in a year, Singh closed with an 8-under-par 63 Jan. 26 at the TPC of Scottsdale. Thanks to an outgoing 29, he vaulted from two strokes behind to three ahead after finishing at 23-under 261. The prize was his 12th PGA Tour title and second in four tournaments dating to the season-ending 2002 Tour Championship.

“He’s certainly one of the guys who has it all,” runner-up John Huston said. “He doesn’t get as much mention as Tiger (Woods), Ernie (Els) and Phil (Mickelson), but he’s right up there. When he putts well, he’s hard to beat.”

The long-hitting Singh has long been one of the game’s best ball-strikers, but his streaky putting has led to experimentation. He putted with his eyes shut eight years ago for feel purposes, but misses ended that method, too. He used a long putter. He putted conventionally. He won his two major championships, the 1998 PGA and 2000 Masters, going left hand low. And he has won three of his last 23 Tour starts using the mid-size, or belly, putter he switched to in mid-2000.

“This feels the best,” he said of the belly. “I worked a lot on my putting in the offseason. I wasn’t getting the same feeling on the course as I was on the practice green. Today I rolled it better.”

A flatter belly helps, too. Singh turns 40 on Feb. 22, but he’s in strong physical condition thanks to a fitness regimen begun four years ago. He’s one of the Tour’s hardest workers in the gym as well as on the range.

Singh travels the Tour with a trainer, Gary Diovisalvi, whose large clientele of professional athletes and entertainers over the years has included Bruce Springsteen. Singh is among a growing number of touring pros who are peaking later in life because of exercise and equipment advances.

“I feel my best golf is to come,” said Singh, an unusual statement for someone on the cusp of 40. “I feel a lot stronger than ever. If you take care of yourself, you can play as well as you want. I feel I can contend up to 50. I don’t think age has anything to do with it now. I’m playing really good golf now, my swing is better than ever and all the tweaking I’ve done has come together. I’m more consistent in how I play.

“I can play another five years and not feel over the hill.”

Equipment helps, too. Singh, like Ernie Els in the first two events of the year, won with the new Titleist Pro V1x 332 ball. He says he carries it 5 to 7 yards farther.

“The ball goes forever,” said Singh, who averaged 308 yards on driving holes for the week. “You don’t have to take a hard swing. It just goes.”

Length is one major reason he won here. He dominated the two back-nine par 5s, going 9 under on those eight holes for the week after reaching in two – usually with 4- or 5-irons. On Sunday, when he birdied seven of the first 11 holes, hot putting accompanied his accurate power game. He birdied the first three holes from 5, 18 and 19 feet, the fifth from 9 feet, the 11th from 15. His other birdies came on two sand wedge shots to 2 feet and a pair of two-putts.

Still, Huston had a chance to catch him late. Two strokes back, Huston hit a 9-iron shot low on the flagstick on the 162-yard 16th, but the ball caromed back 50 feet and off the green.

“I hit what I thought was the perfect shot,” said Huston, who had birdied four of the previous five holes. “I was telling it to go in. If it hadn’t hit the stick, it would’ve been 2 or 3 feet away.”

After parring, Huston felt he needed to make an eagle 2 on the 332-yard 17th. But trying to get a shot going toward the back-left pin, he pulled his drive into water.

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