Third-round leader Vijay Singh didn't make a birdie in his first 18 holes Sunday in the 86th PGA Championship. But when it mattered most in a nerve-racking three-man playoff, he played the extra three holes against Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco in 1 under par and left suddenly snarling Whistling Straits with a one-shot victory and the third major championship of his career, even if he did shoot 76 in regulation.
"It's a big surprise I won that way," said Singh, now a two-time PGA winner, with a 4-over final round that was the highest Sunday score by a champion in tournament history. "I made my first birdie on the 19th hole.
"I just hung in there, never gave up and said to myself 'I'm going to make a putt sooner or later.' It may have looked ugly when you look at the score, but it was a good four over. . . . Hey, I won."
The final major of the season may well be remembered more for the man who lost the title than for the back-in victory by Singh, the third-ranked player in the world and a worthy winner of the Wanamaker Trophy. That would be Leonard, who had a two-shot lead with three holes remaining, with an automatic Ryder Cup berth and the second major of his career within his grasp, only to make bogeys at the 16th and 18th to allow Singh and DiMarco new life in the aggregate-score playoff. All three finished at 8-under 280.
Singh, who had gone 18 majors without a victory since winning the 2000 Masters, did not squander the opportunity. On the first playoff hole, the 361-yard No. 10, he hit a booming drive just short of the green, then chipped his second shot to eight feet. He made that birdie putt, while Leonard missed his 18-footer for birdie and DiMarco salvaged par from the back of the green with a two-footer.
Singh had another birdie chance at the second playoff hole, the 236-yard 17th lengthened by 13 yards from its normal distance. Singh's 3-iron tee shot left him with a five-footer, but he missed that birdie putt and still held a one-shot lead when both his opponents got up and down for pars from off the green.
At the 500-yard 18th hole, Singh simply played safe for a two-putt par, knowing that the hole, into the sun and the wind, almost certainly was not going to yield a birdie. He left himself a 30-foot birdie putt he cozied down to a foot.
Leonard was unable to chip his third shot in for birdie, and DiMarco's third shot from a bunker was never close. When Singh tapped in, the championship he thought he'd blown with a double bogey on the fourth hole and bogeys at Nos. 7 and 14 instead became his fifth victory of the season, worth a winner's check of $1.12 million and a leg up on player of the year honors.
Leonard had admitted on Thursday that "unless I do something wonderful these next three days," he'd be watching the Ryder Cup on television in his Dallas living room. That's likely where he'll be unless team captain Hal Sutton makes him one of his wild-card choices on Monday, and Leonard will be able to blame three bogeys in his final five holes.
"What ultimately cost me this tournament was my putting," he said. "I think I missed four putts inside 10 feet on the back nine [including a six-footer for birdie at the 15th]. It's pretty hard to win a golf tournament, much less a major, putting like that."
Leonard put in a pitch to Sutton to consider him for the squad. Leonard had been a Cup hero when he provided the half point that allowed the U.S. to win the 1999 Cup at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He began the week 30th in the standings and pushed up to 17th place, but he admitted players ahead of him have been far more consistent over the last two years.
"I said hello to Hal, and I said, 'I hope I made the decision tougher for you,' " Leonard said. "I'd love to be picked. I know I could help the U.S. win the Ryder Cup. . . . I'm not expecting to be picked. I won't be disappointed because I know the criteria for making the team. But I'd still love to be there."
DiMarco, who watched his 15-footer for birdie at the 18th hole in regulation stop short by about three inches, at least had the consolation of getting himself on to the Cup team, moving from 15th place to No. 5 with his second-place tie, good for $550,000. On a day he shot 71 and was one of the few on the leader board to move up, he admitted he was a bit nervous over that putt. He said he was satisfied with his play on a much tougher golf course, with greens firming up and breezes blowing harder than they had all week.
"This was the hardest the course played for sure," DiMarco said after his best finish in a major. "I had a very disappointing weekend last week [in the International], and to hang in there this weekend and shoot 71 on Sunday, I'm proud of myself."
There was plenty of frustration from many others in the field, most notably three players who bogeyed the 18th hole and thus missed out on the playoff.
Ernie Els had lost both the Masters and the British Open by a single shot and put himself behind early with bogeys on two of his first four holes. He had a chance to make it into the playoff with a par at the 18th after getting to 8 under with a birdie at the 16th. But his drive ran through the fairway into rough, and he had to lay up from a poor lie.
His third-shot chip left him with an eight-footer for par, but he missed by an inch and ended with a 73 and 7-under 281 for the championship.
Els, who had a chance to overtake Tiger Woods for the No. 1 ranking in the world with a victory, instead will look back at a season that saw him finish second twice in the majors, fourth here and ninth in the U.S. Open.
Chris Riley pushed to 8 under with two birdies on the first four holes of his back nine, then ran off four pars, including a gorgeous save with a 12-footer at the 17th. He came to the 18th needing a par for a chance to make the playoff and left himself a 40-footer for birdie. Instead he three-putted, botching a five-footer that left him tied with Els, also with a 73 -- 281.
At least Riley could take consolation from earning enough points -- 140 -- to push from 18th place in the Ryder Cup standings to an automatic spot on the team, edging Jay Haas out of the top 10.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson will likely look back at a double bogey at the 181-yard third hole when he missed a five-foot bogey putt. But a second shot from the fairway into a greenside bunker at the 18th hole essentially took a birdie out of the equation, and when he missed an eight-footer and made bogey at the 72nd hole for a 74 and 6-under 282, he had to settle for a tie for sixth place.
Mickelson, who had finished second by a stroke at the U.S. Open and third by two shots at the British Open, will remember 2004 as the year he broke through year to win a major. He'll also remember that if he could have shaved off five shots in the four major championships, he'd have been in position for a single-season grand slam.