Singh works himself into contention

CHASKA, Minn. -- The golf world has been consumed this year with talk about a certain surgically repaired knee. About whether it would be better than ever when the prominent player returned to action. And whether there would be any setbacks along the way.

Tiger Woods, of course, appears to be doing just fine after taking eight months away from the game because of reconstructive knee surgery.

Vijay Singh? Well, not so much.

Singh, 46, is just now starting to feel better about his game after admitting he returned too soon from early-season knee surgery. The hard-working Fijian, who last year won three tournaments and the FedEx Cup, has yet to win in 2009.

"It doesn't hurt when I hit it," Singh said after an even-par 72 at Hazeltine National left him tied for second, four shots back of Woods but in Saturday's final pairing. "Only hurts when I go home in the evening. But it's no problem at all."

Not now maybe. But it was.

Singh had surgery on his right knee (Woods' was more serious ACL surgery on his left knee) to repair torn meniscus tissue. He figured to be out for two months but came back in six weeks and struggled for most of the year.

"You never know until you're there and you start favoring it," he said. "You don't even know when you're favoring it. Took me a long time to figure that one out. By the time we figured it out, your swing's all messed up."

It has been a strange year for Singh, 46, who has won 34 times on the PGA Tour, including three major championships.

After playing the Mercedes-Benz Championship in January, Singh had knee surgery and returned at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he missed the cut. For most of the year, it's been a struggle, as Singh has missed more cuts (five) than he has top-10s (three).

He really has not contended down the stretch, with his best finishes a tie for sixth at Colonial, a tie for ninth at the AT&T National and a tie for ninth at the Players Championship. Last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where Singh was the defending champion, he tied for 29th.

"I'm really disappointed this year," Singh said. "I came out well and I just started playing a little too soon, and it kind of put me back quite a bit. Instead of taking two months off, I took a month and a half off, and going to the range created a lot of bad habits for my golf swing. And it took two or three months to get out of it, because every time you get out of something, you develop something new."

Singh seems to have something going here at Hazeltine, where he shot 69 on Thursday afternoon in tough conditions to trail first-round leader Woods by two strokes. He added a 72 in the morning Friday -- with a 3-putt bogey at his final hole, the ninth -- to remain 2 behind Woods before the tournament leader even teed off.

The finish was not what Singh had in mind, but it didn't hurt him much in Friday's warm, breezy conditions. Only two players -- Ernie Els and Tim Clark with 68s -- broke 70 in the morning wave of players. And when Woods bogeyed the first hole in the afternoon, Singh found himself just a stroke out of the lead and figured to be somewhere in the mix this weekend in position to win his first major since the 2004 PGA at Whistling Straits.

It would seem that Singh -- who also won the 1998 PGA and the 2000 Masters -- should take advantage of his opportunities. But given his work habits and physical condition, perhaps there is plenty more time for the golfer who is already in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

And he can look to Kenny Perry, 49, and Tom Watson, 59, both of whom lost in major championship playoffs this year. Perry had the lead at the Masters, as did Watson at the British Open, before bogeying the 72nd hole to drop into playoffs won by Angel Cabrera and Stewart Cink, respectively.

"People are still talking about Tom Watson; I've had more questions about his age and [how he] makes us old guys look great," Singh said. "I said, 'Hold on a sec; I'm not that old.' But it does … give me a lot more inspiration. It would have been great if he had won, but what he did is just incredible.

"It shows how good of a player he is, and really, that age doesn't really matter. If you're healthy and you're fit and your golf game is good, you can play for as long as you want to play, and that gives me a lot more confidence."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.