Singh battles decline in game, status

FORT WORTH -- Vijay Singh, using all the body language he could muster, helped coax a 3-foot par putt in the side door at the par-3 No. 8, his penultimate hole at Thursday's Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

"Last week, that putt would have lipped out," said Gabriel Lopez, Singh's strength and conditioning coach and someone who has seen nearly every hole Singh has played this season.

The 47-year-old Singh went on to make par at his final hole and finish with a 3-under 67, one of his best rounds of the season.

Maybe it signifies slow and steady progress. Singh laughed with his caddie and looked relaxed after the round.

"It should give me some confidence," Singh said. "It's a good start."

It's difficult to grasp the idea that a guy who was No. 1 in the world just six years ago, has won three major championship and has made more than $62 million in his career needs a confidence booster after one round at Colonial Country Club. But he certainly does.

Singh used to be a headliner. If he played in a tournament, there was a good chance his face might appear on a billboard or his name would show up in stories about the strength of the field.

But last week at the Nelson, despite no top-10 players, Singh was an afterthought. He didn't get anything close to top billing this week, either. In a release sent out about the Colonial field, which is the best the tournament has had in years, Singh was listed among players "who could threaten." That was after several other players nearing 50 years old and the young players who have played so well the last year or two.

It's not a spot that many expected Singh to be in less than two years removed from finishing first on the PGA Tour money list.

In the last two months, it appears Singh's game is hitting rock bottom. He fell outside the top 50 in the world after not playing the weekend at the Texas Open a few weeks ago. That's significant because it means he has to qualify for the U.S. Open if he wants to play in the event.

He's missed four cuts in his last five tournaments coming into this week, including The Masters and The Players Championship -- the worst such stretch of his PGA Tour career. Singh hit the ball all over the place off the tee on his way to missing the cut at the HP Byron Nelson Championship last week.

Singh's game began to unravel last season. He was the leading money winner and the FedEx Cup champion in 2008 after three victories. But last season, his right knee started giving him problems. He had surgery in January 2009 to repair a torn meniscus and went back under the knife in December to clean out floating cartilage. In between, Singh couldn't get things figured out on the course. He missed six cuts, his most since joining the PGA Tour in 1992. He was 68th on the money list, making just over $1 million, his lowest total in 12 years.

It hasn't gotten much better so far this year. His best finish is a tie for fourth at The Honda Classic in March, his first top-5 finish since 2008. He's made one cut since April began, and that was at the rain-impacted Texas Open. Singh technically made the cut, but because of the wet weather, only the top 60 and ties played the final two rounds, and Singh missed that cutoff by a stroke.

The statistics are telling. When Singh was tops in the world and on the money list in 2004, he was second on Tour in greens in regulation percentage, tied for 37th in putting average and tied for 19th in ball striking. This season, he's 80th in greens in regulation percentage, tied for 122nd in putting average and 94th in ball striking.

Singh had 18 top-10 finishes per season from 2003 to 2005. Last year, he had three top-10s. One of those was a tie for sixth at the Colonial.

Lopez, who has worked with Singh the last two years, has heard plenty of theories as to why Singh's game has fallen on hard times. Some think his long hours on the range have worn him out. Others see flaws in his mechanics or a balky putter.

Tony Barrett, a 49-year-old from Fort Worth, watched some of Singh's round Thursday. He, like most of the gallery, was there to see Dallas resident Justin Leonard, who shot 67. But Barrett was also curious as to why Singh has fallen so far so fast.

"I wonder if he still wants it as much as he did," Barrett said.

Lopez is quick to say that Singh has just as much drive as he did a few years ago.

"He's anxious to play better golf and compete," Lopez said. "It has nothing to do with that. He just hasn't been healthy. He had the knee surgeries and this year dealt with back issues."

Singh had back spasms at the World Golf Championships at Doral in March and just recently got over them.

"If you're injured, you're just not going to play the way you want to play," Singh said. "You compensate for the golf swing and your body does different things and if you're doing that, you're not going to score well."

But Singh says he's pain free now and has been for a few weeks. He put a new putter in his bag Thursday (it's still a long putter) and was OK with it. He said he could have scored better had a few more gone in. His driver, which was errant too often at the Nelson, was much more accurate Thursday as he hit 10 of 14 fairways. His iron play was solid -- he hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation.

"You have to have the swing and you've got to have the confidence," Singh said about what's needed to play well consistently. "You need both. You can have all the confidence you want, but if you're not swinging well and not scoring well, it's not going to do you any good."

On Thursday, he was swinging and scoring well. Maybe it's the start Singh needs to make his way back into headliner status.

Richard Durrett covers golf for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.