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Baddeley back on the right track

The last big hurdle for Aaron Baddeley was a row of eucalyptus trees to the left of the 17th fairway at Riviera, a shot that could have made his two-shot lead disappear at the Northern Trust Open.

He never gave it much thought.

With a 3-wood, he aimed at a gap in the trees and played a 50-yard cut to get back out into the fairway and escape danger. Moments later, he rapped in a 5-foot par putt on the final hole to win for the first time in four years.

In a battle of generations, Sunday's win at historic Riviera made him feel young again.

It was only two years ago that Baddeley abandoned the "Stack & Tilt" method to return to Dale Lynch, his first coach when he was a teenager in Australia. The goal was for Baddeley to shape shots in both directions without having to worry so much about technique.

His shot on the 17th wasn't the most pivotal in the final round, but it meant plenty to Baddeley.

"Just being able to forget everything, and being able to hit that shot, that's part of the plan," Baddeley said. "Just to be able to let it go and hit shots. So it was great."

Baddeley closed with a 2-under 69 for a two-shot victory over Vijay Singh, who turns 48 on Tuesday. The 29-year-old Australian also had to rally from an early one-shot deficit over Fred Couples, the 51-year-old crowd favorite at Riviera who was trying to become the oldest PGA Tour winner in more than 35 years.

This is the kind of stardom for which Baddeley seemed destined when he won the Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur in 1998 by beating Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, who had just won another European Tour money title. He repeated the next year as a pro, but results have been mixed since then.

Baddeley left his roots to join David Leadbetter, then was among the early pupils of the "Stack & Tilt" method taught by Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer. He won twice on the PGA Tour, but not since the Phoenix Open more than four years ago.

That also was the year he lost a two-shot lead in the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont.

The return to Lynch, he said, made it feel like going home.

"It sounds weird, but he had such an impact on my golfing career growing up," Baddeley said. "He was very much like a mentor, the way I thought, the way I practiced, the way I went about everything. To be able to come home — come back to Dale — felt like coming home because it felt like I was becoming a kid again. And that's what made it fun."

Singh felt like a kid, too, at least with the putter.

The big Fijian only three weeks ago fell out of the top 100 in the world for the first time in more than 21 years, so long ago that the Berlin Wall was still standing when he had last had been outside the top 100.

Free of injury, Singh found a new grip to go with his new putter and put together what he felt was his best week ever on the greens, which would include the Masters he won in 2000.

Singh took only 105 putts for the week, and it kept him in contention. He was within two shots of the lead throughout the back nine, but consecutive bogeys put him in a hole, and Singh couldn't find enough birdies. He wound up with a 69.

Even so, it was his best finish since winning the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2008 on his way to the FedEx Cup title.

"That's a great, great thing to have when you're putting well," Singh said. "I haven't done that for a long, long time. This is going to get me some places."

Couples finally felt his age.

He opened with three straight birdies to take the lead, but it all came undone on one hole for Couples and his tender back.

Tied for the lead, he pushed his tee shot into the barranca to the right of the seventh fairway in grass so thick he had trouble finding his ball. Couples gave it a ferocious whack, and the ball came out to the left and into a bunker. He wound up making double bogey, a three-shot swing when Baddeley holed a 20-footer for birdie from the fringe.

"I just didn't feel the same after that," Couples said. "I didn't really hurt myself, but I never hit a shot, and I just got it around. I mean, I couldn't hit an iron. I hit a few good drives, but I was afraid to hit the ground, hitting it that hard out of that stuff. I did get off to a good start, and that was where it ended.

"It's nothing bad," he said. "I'm not having any excuse. It's just after that point, I never hit a shot."

Couples, who still had hope on the 16th, bogeyed two of the last three holes and shot 73 to tie for seventh.

"I'm a golfer, so I'm disappointed," Couples said.

Equipped with the lead after the three-shot swing on the seventh, Baddeley never let it go. His only mistake was hitting into the trees on consecutive shots and missing a 2½-foot putt to take double bogey on the 12th. Baddeley responded swiftly, making a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe with 8 feet of break.

He made pars the rest of the way, and no one could catch him.

"It's definitely been a couple of long years, but it was worth every bit," Baddeley said. "I really feel that the last couple years is actually what made it easier today ... the character that was just built in me."

It was the third career PGA Tour win for Baddeley, whose game had slipped so much that he had plunged to No. 224 in the world. This isn't enough to get back into the top 50, but at least he can book a trip to Augusta National in April for the Masters.