Twenty years ago he was a lonely youngster hitting shag balls in
the shade of a giant mango tree on a South Pacific island.
Fifteen years ago he was an itinerant golfer leaving a trail of
bad loans and unpaid phone bills from Australia to Malaysia.
Thirteen years ago he was an exiled pro in the rain forest of
Borneo, banned from the Asian tour for altering his scorecard at
the Indonesian Open.
Now Vijay Singh is the PGA champion. With his two-stroke victory
at Sahalee Country Club, 15 miles east of Seattle, Singh, a
Fijian of Indian parentage, wrote the finish to a tale of
redemption worthy of Rudyard Kipling. On Sunday he held off a
pursuing pack that included Steve Stricker and five players who
had already won major championships. Then he got into the back
of a stretch limo with his wife, Ardena, and their
eight-year-old son, Qass, and unceremoniously sped off. Gunga
Din? Not quite. But not your garden-variety PGA winner either.
Singh has long been golf's most elegant mystery, a man who
denies his past by worshiping the moment. He has homes in Ponte
Vedra Beach, Fla., and in London, and rarely visits his
birthplace of Lautoka, in Fiji, where he suffered discrimination
at the hands of ethnic Fijians. He practices
relentlessly--"mindlessly," according to former PGA champion
Steve Elkington, one of his few close friends on tour. For Singh
the simple pleasure of hitting a golf ball and watching it fly
to the horizon is restorative. On the range or inside the ropes,
no one can reach him.
Which is how he wants it. Over the last 10 years, Singh, 35, has
made noise all over the world, with five victories on the PGA
Tour, seven on the European tour and 11 in events from Ivory
Coast to Sweden. But like the proverbial tree falling in the
forest, Singh wasn't heard. Last year alone he won the Buick
Open and the Memorial in the U.S., the South African Open and
the World Match Play championship in England. Yet nobody labeled
him "the best player never to have won a major," which is what
he may well have been. They called him "golf's hardest worker."
Singh was the guy who belted practice balls until the stars came
out and possums played in the bunkers.
Sahalee changed that forever. Let the record now show how good
Singh is. And let us recall just briefly how naughty he was.
Naughty is the word, because none of Singh's youthful
indiscretions did permanent damage. In Australia, when he was
barely out of his teens, Singh financed his travels with loans
from friends and tour officials, rarely paying anyone back. (He
cleared up most of his debts a few years ago--the ones he could
remember.) He was also notorious for making long-distance phone
calls from clubhouses and leaving without paying the bill.
But the episode that has truly haunted him occurred in Jakarta
in 1985, when the Asian tour suspended Singh for improving his
score by a stroke before turning his card in to tournament
officials. Singh has long maintained that it was all a
misunderstanding. Asian golf officials and other witnesses
insist he was caught red-handed and deserved his punishment.
Whatever the facts, the Singh who emerged on the PGA European
tour in the early 1990s bore little resemblance to the man who
after the Jakarta episode went into exile for two years to teach
golf to lumberjacks and oil riggers in Keningau, Borneo, a
jungle outpost 2 1/2 hours from civilization by dirt road. As
Singh says, "I became a little more polished and a lot more
mature. An experience like that forces you to grow up."
Singh's play in Washington reflected his hard-won growth. To
prevail he had to withstand challenges from Masters and British
Open champion Mark O'Meara, who was seeking his third major of
the year, a feat accomplished in the modern era only by Ben
Hogan in 1953; from Tiger Woods, who shot a course-record 66 to
lead after one round; and from former PGA champs Elkington, Nick
Price and Davis Love III. He also had to fend off Stricker, who
is a world-beater when he hits more fairways than he misses.
Everyone's task, of course, was to solve an unfamiliar golf
course in a region, the Pacific Northwest, that hadn't hosted a
men's major championship in 52 years. Sahalee was a woodcutter's
dream--320 acres of old-growth forest with hundred-foot cedars and
firs casting shadows so dark you needed a flashlight to read
yardages. Throw in a witch's cottage and you'd have had the
frontispiece of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
So confining was Sahalee that Singh used his driver as sparingly
as a pastry chef uses Tabasco, hitting three-woods and
long-irons off the tees. He opened with a par-70 on Thursday,
equaled Woods's course record on Friday and then fired a 67 to
share the third-round lead with Stricker, four shots up on the
field. On Sunday, Stricker struggled with his long-irons but
hung in with some sand saves and clutch putts. Singh scrambled a
bit himself--his hooded-wedge escape from the woods on the 14th
stands out--but his cross-handed putting showed none of the
uncertainty that had him constantly switching putters and
changing his stroke earlier in the year. Singh finished with a
68 for 271, two better than Stricker and three ahead of Elkington.
Did the fans at 18 on Sunday who chanted, "Vijay! Vijay! Vijay!"
know they were using the Hindi word for victory? Probably not.
But it seemed a fitting salute to a man who has lifted his life
from an embarrassment to an embarrassment of riches. Singh
responded with characteristic reserve, raising his putter in
acknowledgement. But afterward he came close to revealing what
it meant to him to reach such heights. "It's something I never
thought was going to happen," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Not to mention inspiring. From Suva to Srinigar, dark-skinned
youngsters who can't quite relate to the almost mythical Woods
may now take up golf in imitation of Singh, who practiced last
Saturday evening before a grandstand audience that included Sikhs
and Saracens. "This will be huge in India," said one fan in
attendance, Randy Garg, whose parents are from that country. "It
will be interesting to see what happens to amateur golf there."
It will be equally interesting to see what happens to Singh. As
storm clouds opened on Sahalee minutes after his victory,
revelers on the clubhouse deck serenaded him with choruses of
Singhin' in the Rain. The new PGA champion isn't used to such
acceptance. But he might learn to like it.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Uplifting While swinging to a two-stroke win, Singh provided possible inspiration to a whole subcontinent of new players. [Vijay Singh]