Singh grabs first-round lead with 66
KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The calendar changed. Vijay Singh didn't.
Coming off one of the best years in golf, Singh opened the new season with an early statement Thursday at the Mercedes Championships, overpowering the Plantation Course at Kapalua and making just enough putts for a 7-under 66 and a one-shot lead over Craig Parry.
It was the same kind of golf that carried Singh to nine victories and a record $10.9 million in 2004. And even with Tiger Woods showing more signs that his game is back, the 41-year-old Fijian remained an imposing presence.
"That's the way he's been playing," Woods said after opening with a 68. "It's a continuation of it."
Singh had said he wanted to start the year strong at the winners-only Mercedes Championships, just to remind everyone that he was still the man to beat.
No one could argue with that on a sunny, tropical day along the rugged shores of Maui.
All it took was a three-hole stretch at the turn -- short birdie putts on Nos. 10, 11 and 12 -- for Singh to quickly work his way up the leaderboard, into a position that has become all too familiar.
Woods was among those tied for the lead on the back nine, but he struggled on the greens and he could not keep pace with Singh, who put himself in enough good positions to make birdies.
"I made nothing today," said Woods, who missed eight birdie putts inside 18 feet. "I had a hard time getting the speed. You rely so much on memory, and this time it messed me up a little bit."
But he had no problem with the rest of his game, especially off the tee. Woods routinely launched drives over 320 yards, and all but three of them found the short grass.
It was a solid start to the year, not just for Singh, but for the rest of the PGA Tour. Anticipation is high for most of the elite players to be on top of their game, and Thursday did not disappoint.
The Plantation Course has never looked so lush, although Singh and Woods said that's what might have kept more players from shooting low scores. With so much grass on the greens, the thick grain made it difficult to find the proper pace and the right line.
"I was surprised nobody went lower than me," Singh said.
Singh also missed a half-dozen birdie putts inside 18 feet, including a 10-footer on the final hole. Still, he got the start he wanted in the first tournament of the year.
"I'm here," he said with a smile. "You want to start the year off strong. This is a huge tournament. All the winners are here. My intention is to play solid and win."
The 31 winners from last year -- only Masters champion Phil Mickelson elected not to play -- eased their way into the new season. This was the first competitive round in more than a month for many of the players, although the generous fairways at Kapalua allowed for some rust.
"I basically got away with the fact that the golf course was pretty wide open," Woody Austin said after his 69. "I hit it all over the place -- just very lucky."
Only four players shot over par, including defending champion Stuart Appleby (74).
Cink and Parry both got off to steady starts, making the turn at 5 under par, but neither of them could keep it going.
Parry was fortunate that his tee shot stopped just short of the banana grass framing a bunker on No. 12, although he could barely get it into the fairway and made bogey. He wasted a great chance when he reached the par-5 15th in two, but then three-putted for par -- his first three-putt on tour since the 2003 season.
He finished with a 15-foot birdie for 67.
"This is the best I've felt going into a PGA Tour event," said Parry, who played in Japan and three times in Australia over the last few months. "I feel as though I'm pretty sharp."
Garcia, who won at Kapalua two years ago, played bogey-free after a sluggish start.
"I was a bit tentative on the front nine, the first tournament of the year," he said. "But it was a good day. I've just got to keep it going the rest of the week and the rest of the year."
Singh and Woods looked like they were braced for a season-long battle.
Woods started a new year loaded with promise by missing the first fairway at Kapalua for the second straight year -- but only because he hit it so long that it ran through the end of the fairway, a 367-yard drive.
The driver no longer appears to be an issue. The putting drove him crazy.
Woods made his only bogey on No. 4 when he gunned a 20-foot about 4 feet by the hole and missed it badly to the right coming back. But what really angered him were a couple of eagle putts.
With a stiff breeze into his face, he hit driver off the fairway from 265 yards into about 15 feet on the No. 9, but had to settle for birdie. With a chance to take the outright lead, he hit another big drive on the par-5 15th and an approach just 12 feet below the cup, but that slid away to the left.
"If I putt the way I normally do, that's three or four shots right there," Woods said. "From that standpoint, it's very encouraging. It's nice to not have to work so hard to shoot a low number."
Singh worked harder than ever during his short offseason. He thought about his game, what needed to be fixed and what he needed to do to win at Kapalua.
After one day, 2005 looked no different from last year.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press