Singh Finds Himself at the Head of the Class

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Vijay Singh's car pulled up in front of the clubhouse at Augusta National, and he knew the routine from there.
 
He climbed the green-carpeted stairs to the Masters champions locker room, a place he has occupied the last five years.

A view from the top is most appropriate for Singh at this Masters.

It is the first major championship where he is the No. 1 player in the world, and don't think he doesn't know it.
 
'I'm pretty comfortable with the position I'm in,' Singh said Tuesday. 'I should be, you know? I don't have any worries. I'm enjoying my game right now. What can be better? I'm here at the Masters, best player in the world right now and ready to go win another one.'

He knows it won't be easy.

Another warm, dry practice round only made the venerable course firmer and faster, especially the greens. These conditions make the margin of error even smaller than it already is. Mike Weir noticed the rough a fraction higher, which figures to take a little more valuable spin off the ball.
 
And that's just the course.

The guys chasing Singh are positioned nicely -- Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson right behind him, a list that includes Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and David Toms also playing well.

'I don't think I'm afraid of anybody out there,' Singh said.

'I just think it's really up to me how I play. If I go out there and start worrying about Tiger or Phil or Ernie, then I'm in the wrong business. I've got to try to figure out how I'm going to play, how I'm going to manage my game, and how I'm going to beat everybody else in the field.'

The focus is on the next three guys behind him in the world ranking.
 
Mickelson is the defending champion and was loaded with confidence when he arrived Monday evening at Augusta National, having won the BellSouth Classic in a four-hole playoff for his third PGA Tour victory of the year. And there's always that green jacket he won last year.

Els is still stung by coming up one shot short of a playoff last year, although he remains confident as ever, and for good reason. He hasn't finished worse than sixth the last five years at Augusta National, including runner-up finishes last year to Mickelson and in 2000 to Singh.
 
'I see the golf course in a new light. I'm excited about this year,' Els said. 'I just feel I can do well here, and that's an exciting feeling to have.'
 
But for all the talk of a Big Four, it starts with No. 1 -- the guy who sits atop the world ranking, and the guy he replaced. Many believe Woods is still the man to beat at the Masters, starting with six-time champion Jack Nicklaus.
 
Woods played nine holes Monday, holing out for eagle with a sand wedge on the ninth, and played a full round on Tuesday as tries to get his game into shape. A victory this year would end his longest drought in the majors -- 10 starts -- and allow him to join Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only players with at least four green jackets.
 
He isn't anywhere near his level in 1999-2001, when there was question whether anyone else could be No. 1, but it has been good enough for victories this year at Torrey Pines and Doral.
 
'I don't think Tiger has played his best the last year or so,' Nicklaus said. 'He's still obviously the dominant player. I didn't have to play my best to win, and Tiger doesn't have to play his best to win. But when he plays his best, he's going to probably win.'
 
Woods has looked good this year -- at times. But after rallying to beat Mickelson in a thrilling duel at Doral, he lost control of his driver at Bay Hill and couldn't make a putt at The Players Championship, finishing out of the top 20 in consecutive weeks for the first time in four years.

Still, it beats where he was a year ago.

Woods was just embarking on swing changes with Hank Haney, and he had his worst performance ever in the Masters by shooting 2-over 290, 11 shots out of the lead.

'Last year I was just getting started with the changes,' Woods said. 'And this year, I'm just putting the finishing touches on the changes. So, two different scenarios. Last year, I was just hoping to put myself in contention with a short game and putting. This year, I know the ball-striking is there. That's a big difference.'

On trophies alone, Singh is the least accomplished of the so-called Big Four. His only victory came in the Sony Open in January, when he birdied the par-5 18th hole to beat Els by one shot.
 
But the bigger picture reveals a guy who knows where every shot is going, and who is rarely far from the lead. When the other stars vanished at The Players Championship, Singh was making a move on the leaders until a late lapse on the greens. He blew chances to win at the Honda Classic and Bay Hill Invitational.

But he was there. And as Woods is fond of saying, giving yourself a chance is the first step toward winning.

And that's what Singh has done more than anyone else, which explains his perch atop the world ranking.
 
'I think it's good to be No. 1, but you've got to know what your directions are,' Singh said. 'And coming over here, my direction is not to keep the No. 1 spot, but to win a major, win the Masters. That's important.'
 
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