Tour Championship leaders try to end Singh's monopoly

Friday, November 5, 2004

ATLANTA -- Not everyone wants to see Vijay Singh wins his 10th tournament of the year. Three guys who shared the lead Thursday in the Tour Championship would be thrilled to win their first.

Darren Clarke, Jerry Kelly and 50-year-old Jay Haas each had a 3-under 67 on a soggy, blustery and entertaining first round at East Lake, a good start as they try to end their seasons on a good note.

"I've had a very poor year," Clarke said. "We all play to win, and I haven't managed to do that this year so far."

Singh has won nine times, and he put himself in position to become the first player since 1950 to reach double digits. Despite going 16 holes without a birdie, the Fijian recovered from enough missed shots for a 69.

"It was a day where you just have to manage yourself, get around, not get too far from the lead," Singh said.

And for those who wondered how marriage would change Tiger Woods? He still can't hit a fairway. In his first tournament since getting married, Woods struggled off the tee and out of the rough, finishing with a 72.

Entertainment came from Ernie Els, who broke his putter while slamming an 8-iron into his bag and finished the round putting with his sand wedge. He also had a 72.

"I wasn't making putts. I figured I might as well use the sand wedge," Els said. "That didn't work, either."

The 67 was the highest score to lead the Tour Championship in the four years it has been held at East Lake. Only 13 players among the top 31 on the money list managed to break par.

And no one was surprised.

Heavy rain Thursday morning turned fairways into small rivers, but a new drainage system at East Lake allowed the season-ending tournament to start on time. It dried up so well that tour officials decided to play the ball as it lies, leaving players to face several shots with mud splattered on their golf balls.

Then came the wind, whistling through the trees and making the closing holes play even tougher. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the trio in the lead had the earlier starting times.

Either that, or they know this is their last chance to win.

Haas has gone 11 years without a victory, although he wouldn't trade his season. He became the second-oldest player in the Ryder Cup, and Wednesday was honored with the Payne Stewart Award.

"I was probably more nervous about my speech yesterday than I was about my first round today," Haas said.

The old man showed he still has plenty of game.

He nearly found the cup on the fly with a 6-iron on the par-3 11th, making a 12-footer. He surged into a share of the lead with a 5-wood into 15 feet on the par-5 15th to make eagle.

"I'm weak, short, slow, whatever," Haas said. "In the field of athletics, I would not be the favorite by any means. But there's no defense out here, so that's the good thing for me."

David Toms and Zach Johnson each at 68, while the group at 69 included John Daly, Mike Weir and Padraig Harrington. A victory by Harrington would make him a PGA Tour member and send Tag Ridings -- No. 125 on the money list -- back to Q-school. It also would knock Jesper Parnevik (No. 40) out of the Masters.

Clarke seems to thrive in the big events, having captured his two U.S. victories at the 2000 Match Play Championship and the 2003 NEC Invitational.

This is his second straight week playing an event like the Tour Championship. He played at Valderrama last week in Spain, the final event on the European tour. Clarke was in decent shape on the weekend until making an 11 on the diabolical 17th hole.

Clarke is no fan of Valderrama, but he found East Lake to his liking.

"There's no trees in the middle of the fairways here," he said.

Kelly might be taking the best approach to the Tour Championship. He is disgusted with no wins this year, but figured he must have done something right to get into the top 30 on the money list.

"You're out here to win, and I've gone the last two years without a win. And this year was really tough on me," Kelly said. "I really didn't feel like I had a good year. But accept it a little bit and enjoy the fact you're here. That's what I've done. I've taken a lot of the pressure off and kind of enjoyed it."

Kelly was loving life at 4 under par until he got to No. 16 about the time the wind started to gust. His approach was some 20 yards short, and he had little chance to save par. Clarke also bogeyed the 16th to fall into a share of the lead.

Singh gave the gallery what it came to see -- the No. 1 player in the world, making the game look easy. He fired his approach into 2 feet on the opening hole for a tap-in birdie.

That didn't last long. He took bogey on the fourth hole from a fairway bunker, missed good opportunities on the par 5 and would have been happy with an even-par round.

But he rolled in a 25-footer for birdie on the 17th, and suddenly his name was where it has been all year -- near the top of the leaderboard.

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