AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For much of Sunday's final round of the Masters, Vijay Singh could feel his nerves. Walking from the tee to the fairway, from fairway to green, the calmest-looking golfer on the face of the earth was churning inside.
But once he stood over the ball, the world disappeared. No spectators, no noise, no thoughts of other golfers making charges, no anxiety over his place in golfing history. There was nothing but the ball, the target ... and by the time the sun was setting over the tall Georgia Pines, a green jacket.
Dismissing his challengers almost like afterthoughts, Singh shot a 3-under-par 69 to finish at 10-under 278, three shots ahead of Ernie Els and four ahead of David Duval and Loren Roberts.
Those three, and Tiger Woods, all made runs at Singh, who began the fourth round with a three-shot lead, but none could ever catch him. Whenever anyone got close, Singh simply filtered out the distractions and made the challengers disappear.
''It's funny,'' Singh said. ''When I'm walking between shots, I get butterflies, it's a very funny feeling. I look around and I'm not at ease at all. But once I get over the ball, I'm pretty comfortable. I'm more focused when I'm over the ball at any time than when I'm walking.''
It was Singh's first Masters victory in his seventh appearance and, added to his 1998 PGA Championship, gives him two major titles.
Singh has long been recognized on tour as a great ball striker, but his putting has been suspect, particularly on the humpback pool tables they call greens at the Augusta National Golf Club.
True to form, Singh led the field in greens in regulation over four rounds, his percentage of 80.6 the best since the statistic was first compiled in 1981.
And after the first round, when he shot an even-par 72, it appeared that his putting was as bad as it had ever been, even though he came into the Masters vowing to have a better attitude about it, not to let the greens bother him. He was ranked 95th in the field of 95 after 18 holes. That's something you'd expect from a golfer who has more than a thousand putters at home and changes them when things are not going well ... which means very often.
He has a new putter now, one that he started using after throwing away the putter he had used at the Players Championship in March. After the first round here, Singh's putting turned around, and his driving and iron play was so strong, he needed only to avoid putting disasters to win this tournament. He did more than that Sunday.
Singh had five birdies, and made virtually every shot and putt he needed to.
The first came early Sunday as he and seven others were completing their third rounds from Saturday, suspended because of darkness. Singh had hit into the front bunker on the 17th hole and blasted out to about 12 feet above the hole. He sank a tricky downhill putt for par that kept his lead over playing partner Duval at three shots, a lead he carried into the final round.
''When I made that putt on 17, that was big,'' he said. ''If I had missed and David had made his, that would have been a two-shot swing. ...
''I was really confident with a three-shot lead that as long as I played solid as I did all week, they'd have to come up and catch me.''
Els shot a 4-under 68 Sunday, Roberts a 69, Duval a 70 and Woods a 69 on the second-lowest scoring day of the tournament. There were nine rounds in the 60s and 21 below par.
Tom Lehman closed with a 69 to finish at 285, and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III, each of whom had begun the day six shots behind Singh, managed 71s, losing ground to the winner and finishing at 286.
Woods was the first player to make a run at Singh, with birdies on the second and fourth holes, but he began the day six shots behind and never got closer than three.
Duval, who has repeatedly said he has built his season around winning this tournament, made the most serious charge. He shot a four-under 32 on the front to get to eight under, one from Singh. But the three times Duval made birdie putts that could pull him even, the 37-year-old native of Fiji answered.
''I never saw a chance to catch him,'' Duval said.
Duval probably took himself out of the tournament on No. 13. He plunked his second-shot on the par-5 hole into Rae's Creek with a 5-iron that would have been just as ugly in an Elks Lodge scramble at Griffith Park.
When Singh birdied 13, he had a three-shot lead over Duval.
By the 15th hole, Els had played his way into contention. After managing only one birdie on the front, he got within two of Singh with a birdie at 15, but could get no closer.
Singh did his best to eliminate the back-nine drama usually associated with Sundays in the Masters, though Amen Corner nearly changed the course of the tournament.
On the par-four 11th, Singh hit his second shot into the pond in front of the green, but because of the spot the ball entered the hazard, Singh was allowed to drop the ball closer to the hole than the usual drop area. He got up and down for his best bogey of the tournament.
Then on 12, he hit a seven-iron over the green into the azaleas, but the ball kicked back into the bunker. He blasted to about three feet and saved par. Those two holes could just has easily have been a pair of double bogeys, which would have set up a finish to rival any in Masters history.
But by the time Singh sank an 18-foot birdie putt on 18 to end what had been a meticulous dismantling of the course and his opponents, any sense of drama had long vanished.
''I was pretty focused out there all day,'' Singh said. ''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.''
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