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BILL DWYRE

Vijay Singh puts up a battle for old-timers' sake

The former No. 1 golfer in the world has a terrific round Saturday and is in contention for the Northern Trust Open title, only a few days before his 48th birthday.

February 19, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Vijay Singh birdied Nos. 10, 13, 16 and 18 for a 67 during Saturday's round at the Northern Trust Open.
Vijay Singh birdied Nos. 10, 13, 16 and 18 for a 67 during Saturday's… (Stuart Franklin / Getty…)

There was another senior moment Saturday in the Northern Trust Open golf tournament, which should consider adding AARP as a presenting sponsor.

It wasn't enough that 51-year-old Fred Couples led the tournament by two shots going into Round 3 on Saturday, topping the 20- and 30-somethings and hanging with them again Saturday.

But there was Vijay Singh — remember him? — standing over a birdie putt on No. 18 that would put him right in the heat of Sunday's final-round battle.

The chilly winds and intermittent rains had kept the size of the galleries at Riviera down, but a nice-sized group had discovered Singh as he birdied Nos. 10, 13 and 16 and had walked along to the end. The regulars who grab a spot and stay on the signature hill that surrounds this legendary finishing hole also had their interest piqued.

Singh will celebrate his 48th birthday Tuesday. He isn't on the senior tour, er, Champions Tour yet, but from where he is in his career, you can see it from there. The last few years, he has carried on through knee and back injuries and, according to him, should not have. As recently as Jan. 24, he was ranked No. 105 in the world, the first time in 21 years he had been outside the top 100.

"…I can surely say now," he said, "that if I get injured, I'm going to take a lot of time off to recover. … It takes twice or three times as long to come back. And that's what I did the last two years, thinking that I could play half fixed."

Singh certainly knows the difference between playing well and fooling yourself that you are. He has been one of the premier players on the tour in the last 15 years, winning three majors (the 1998 and 2004 PGA and the 2000 Masters) and has led the PGA Tour in money in 2003, 2004 and even as recently as 2008, when he was No. 5 in the world.

There were times when experts and commentators actually kicked around the question of who was better, Singh or this Tiger Woods kid.

OK, not a lot of times.

Still, it was hard to overlook this 6-foot-2 smooth swinger from Fiji, especially since his first name translates to "Victory" in Hindu.

But when Woods disintegrated in his driveway, Singh was already too old and too injured to take another climb to the top of the pedestal. His focus has been on returning, not reigning.

So he went to work in the off-season, said he was as ready as he has been in a while for the tour to begin, disappointed himself with a poor finish in the Sony tournament in Hawaii, but then tied for 20th in San Diego, shared third in Phoenix and shared 26th last week in Pebble Beach. He has already won $477,492 — to go with his career $63 million — and it is only February. Another good day Sunday could get him into the tour's top-10 FedEx Cup rankings.

Still, there was little question that Saturday's walk around Riviera produced a better-than-expected result. He rolled in several long putts and was asked which ones had surprised him.

"All of them," he said, laughing.

He also said, "I didn't hit the ball like my score reflected," and added that Saturday was "one of the best putting rounds I've had in a long, long time."

Certainly part of that was the 28-footer he stood over on No. 18. To that point, he had taken only 24 putts in his round, which was the same number he had in his opening-round 68.

The big scoreboard nearby set the scene. Young Aussie Aaron Baddeley was in the lead at 10 under par. Young Californian Kevin Na was one back. Not-so-young Californian Couples had hung around and was also one back.

Singh had jumped over a bunch of others with a long birdie putt at No. 16 and would be eight under and all alone in fourth place with another long bomb.

The pin was in the right rear of the postage-stamp 18th green. Singh had steered his approach four-iron almost pin high, but to the left. The putt would break left to right, away from the hill and the historic Riviera clubhouse 100 feet or so above.

Singh stood over it, placed his left hand below his right on the putter and his right hand in the classic claw grip, then sent it rolling smooth and sure. In its last four or five revolutions, the ball slowed and turned right, dropping into the cup with that magic sound that is music to the ears of all golfers.

Vijay Singh had shot 67, to go with his 68 and 70, and had the leaders in his gun sights.

"I'm really fired up for tomorrow," he said. "I know I'm in a good position to win."

Sunday should bring better weather. Also, high TV ratings at senior citizen centers all over the country, where the rooting sentiments will be for a Couples-Singh playoff.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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