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Perry blows lead, wins anyway

| Monday, March 21, 2005

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Vijay Singh returned to No. 1 in the world Sunday and couldn't care less.

Kenny Perry lost a three-shot lead in three holes, but emerged the winner in the Bay Hill Invitational when Singh hit 7-iron off the rocks and into the water on the 18th hole to make double bogey, the second straight week he has blown a chance to win.

With Singh in the water, Perry went for the center of the green and lagged his 70-foot putt within 2 feet. He closed with a 2-under-par 70 and at age 44 became the oldest winner of Arnold Palmer's tournament.

Last week, Singh missed a 2.5-foot par putt on the second extra hole in the Honda Classic to lose to Padraig Harrington. The Fijian made a spectacular charge at Bay Hill, with two birdies and a clutch par to erase a three-shot deficit and reach the 18th hole with momentum on his side.

From 174 yards in the middle of the fairway, he posed over his shot as it descended against the hazy sky, then bent over in anguish as it crashed off the rocks and splashed into the lake.

"It stunned me," Perry said. "I expected him to come up close. It was a big break for me. I just aimed left and played it safe. I knew I could three-putt."

The only consolation for Singh was replacing Tiger Woods at No. 1 in the world.

With Woods chopping his way around Bay Hill to finish out of the top 20, Singh only had to finish fourth to return to No. 1 in the world ranking.

"Big deal," Singh said. "I lost the golf tournament."

For the second straight week, Singh watched someone else pose with the trophy. And for the second straight week, he declined to come into the press center for an interview as a joint runner-up.

Perry finished at 12-under 276 for his eighth career victory, worth $900,000, and giving him loads of confidence coming into the first stretch of big tournaments.

The other consolation prize went to Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.

He never seriously challenged for the lead, but the 25-year-old turned in a flawless final round that produced the best round of the tournament. He closed with a 6-under 66 to finish third alone, which gets him into The Players Championship next week and likely will earn him a spot in his first Masters.

The top 50 in the world after The Players Championship next week are eligible for the Masters, and McDowell is expected to move into the low 40s.

"It would be a dream come true, really," McDowell said. "The Masters ... I've watched that tournament since I was a boy. For me, it's the pinnacle of the golf world."

U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen opened with a 78 and was tied for 93rd. He thought about pulling out, but stuck around and wound up fourth after closing with rounds of 67-68-70, including a birdie on the 18th.

Woods needed to mount a semblance of a charge to have any hopes of staying No. 1, but he went the other direction. By the time he played six holes, Woods already had three bogeys and two balls in the water. He birdied two of his last three holes for an even-par 72 to finish at 1-under 287.

He was only three shots behind after two rounds and was surprised that his swing deserted him. But he was not worried about his game with the Masters looming. And he was not bothered by losing his No. 1 ranking after two weeks.

"It's all about winning. I'm sure he (Singh) feels the same way," Woods said. "No. 1 is just a number. If you win a bunch of tournaments each year ... the ranking will follow."

Ernie Els also had a chance to be No. 1 with a victory at Bay Hill, but his hopes fizzled with a 77 in the second round. The Big Easy closed with a 70 and joined Woods in a tie for 23rd.

Perry won for the first time since 2003, when he went on a tear during the summer with three victories in four starts. But as well as he played on a difficult Bay Hill course, he needed some help at the end.

Perry had a three-shot lead when Singh holed a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 15, and Perry had to make a 10-footer for par to keep a cushion. After a 20-minute wait on the par-5 16th, Perry saw a big advantage disappear.

Singh was in the rough and had to play short of the water, while Perry went just over the back of the green. Singh's wedge landed some 25 feet behind the hole and stopped 10 inches away for birdie, while Perry chunked his chip and settled for par. Perry then chipped 8 feet by the hole on the par-3 17th and missed it coming back, the end of his lead.

Ultimately, Singh restored his hope.

"If I had to do it again, I probably would have hit a different club, played a little bit safer and hopefully see if Kenny made a mistake," Singh said. "But that's not the way I play. I play aggressive and I went for the flag. I just came up a little short."

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