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Singh mastery dawns; Solid morning finish to 3rd round set up taking of green jacket; Masters his 2nd major title; Morning misses, shot in creek doom Duval

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The record book will read that Vijay Singh won the 64th Masters at Augusta National last night. It will say that his 3-under-par 69 in the final round gave Singh a four-round total of 10-under-par 278 to finish three shots ahead of Ernie Els and four ahead of David Duval and Loren Roberts.

In winning the second major championship of his eight-year career on the PGA Tour and becoming only the second player of color to put on the coveted green jacket, the former PGA champion will tell you something else: that he probably won the tournament yesterday morning.

That's when Singh came out to finish the third round that was delayed by rain and lightning for more than two hours Saturday afternoon, then suspended by darkness with Singh and Duval on the 15th fairway. What transpired in the course of those four holes played mightily in the outcome.

Singh made four straight pars, including a 15-foot putt to save par after hitting in the bunker on the par-4 17th hole. Duval missed two short birdie putts, including a tricky 3-footer right after Singh made his par. It helped Singh take a three-shot lead over Duval going into the afternoon round.

"That kind of gave me a lift," said Singh, 37, who was born in Fiji and is of Indian descent. "I was very confident with a three-shot lead. As long as I played solid, I knew they would have to catch me. It was very important. I said to myself, 'Don't lose any shots going into the afternoon.' "

Duval didn't think it played a major factor.

"I think in the scheme of things it's irrelevant," said Duval.

One fact was indisputable: Singh was never caught. When Duval bogeyed the par-5 13th hole after Singh averted disaster on the par-3 12th -- his tee shot bounced out of an azalea bush behind the green and into a bunker -- it was just a matter of keeping his distance.

The door opened slightly for Els when Singh followed a birdie at the par-5 15th with another three-putt bogey at the par-3 16th, but the former two-time U.S. Open champion failed to capitalize by missing birdie putts of 8, 15 and 12 feet on the last three holes.

"It just wasn't meant to be," said Els, who made his charge by shooting a 4-under-par 68. "If I had made that putt on 18, I still might have lost, but at least I would have given Vijay a chance to think about it."

Playing a hole behind Els, Singh turned the par-4 18th into a victory stroll. He placed his drive safely in the fairway, put his approach to about 10 feet and calmly sank the birdie putt. Singh lifted his putter, plucked his ball out of the cup and kissed it, then hugged his caddie and 9-year-old son Qass.

"I was pretty focused out there all day," said Singh, whose previous victory in a major came two years ago at the PGA Championship. "I never at one time had a clear lead until I got to the 15th hole. But walking up that 18th hole, knowing that a two-putt was going to win the golf tournament was probably the greatest feeling I've had for a long, long time."

The feeling Duval had was becoming too painfully familiar for a player ranked second in the world behind Tiger Woods. By the time he had reached 18, all Duval was thinking about was another opportunity lost at the Masters.

Two years ago, he had a three-shot lead with three holes to play and wound up losing by a shot to Mark O'Meara. Last year, Duval fell out of contention when he hit into the water and double-bogeyed the par-4 11th. Then came the errant approach on 13 yesterday.

In the fairway of the 485-yard par-5 that played easier than any hole all week, Duval stepped away from his 196-yard shot twice after watching Singh put his own approach on the green, and changed clubs once before deciding on a 5-iron. The ball hit the bank of the hill by the green and bounced into Rae's Creek, the watery grave for many contenders over the years.

"I was trying to hit it in the same area that Vijay hit it," said Duval, who narrowly missed a 10-footer for par to drop to 6-under, three shots behind Singh at the time. "I decided on the right line and the right club and hit a poor golf shot. I feel it was probably the only poor shot I hit this weekend. I really don't know what else to say about it."

Duval wouldn't second-guess himself, but he would point to the breaks he thought Singh had received earlier.

Even before his tee shot on 12, Singh hit into a pond in front of the 11th green. He received a correct but favorable ruling that allowed him to chip from just off the green rather than pitch over the pond again. He made a 90-foot pitch to within 3 feet and took his bogey.

"I think the drop made it all," he said later. "The way the drop went into the water on 11, and then I dropped pretty close to the green, that angle was much easier to get up and down than going all the way to the ball drop [area]. When I saw the ball go in, I said, 'That's not too bad.' A lot of guys make bogey on 11 anyway, so all I needed to do was get up and down."

Said Duval: "Those are the kind of things you need to happen to win. You need those breaks. I didn't get any one of those, I don't feel, at least not big ones like that."

Singh's victory was not simply a matter of getting lucky bounces. He hit 58 of the 72 greens in regulation, his 80.6 percent leading the field. (Duval was a distant 14th, making 49 of 72 -- 68.1 percent.) A player known to take himself out of contention with shaky putting, Singh didn't hurt himself on the greens.

"If you look at my tee to green, I'm a good candidate to win this," said Singh, whose best previous finish here was a tie for 17th three years ago. "I drive the ball a fairly good distance and I hit my irons high. But the only thing I was having trouble with was the greens. I think it helped me a little bit when it rained a little [Saturday] and slowed the greens up a little.

"If you asked me the question two years ago, I'd have said I can't win this because of the way I was putting. But Augusta's greens are so severe that if you're not a good putter, you're not going to win this. But my attitude was a big boost to that, and that's why I'm sitting up here [at the post-victory news conference]."

The victory, which was worth $828,000, was the ninth of Singh's career on the PGA Tour, his first since last year's Honda Classic. It was his 27th worldwide in a controversial career that dates back to his years playing on the Australian and European tours. It was while playing in a tournament in Indonesia in 1985 that Singh was accused of altering his scorecard, leading to a suspension from the Australian Tour. Singh has always denied the allegation.

It led to Singh taking a job as a club pro in Borneo, where he spent long hours in sweltering heat working on his game. Singh has long been known as one of the hardest-working players on the PGA Tour and credits much of his success to the time he spent in Malaysia.

"Talking to my wife after the PGA, we've thought about it being a big change," recalled Singh, who lives with his wife, Ardena, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "We cherished the time we were there. Although it was a struggle, it was a peaceful struggle."

The same could be said about what Singh endured yesterday in winning the 64th Masters. Just when he won it was a matter for debate.

The Masters

The winner...

Vijay Singh 69-278-10

... and selected followers

Ernie Els 68-281 -7

Loren Roberts 69-282 -6

David Duval 70-282 -6

Tiger Woods 69-284 -4

Tom Lehman 69-285 -3

Davis Love 71-286 -2

Phil Mickelson 71-286 -2

Greg Norman 70-288 E

Fred Funk 73-294 +6

Sergio Garcia 78-295 +7

Jack Nicklaus 78303 +15

Complete scores. 7d

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