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Vijay The Victor

By winning the PGA, that man of mystery, Vijay Singh, cleared up any doubts about his stature as a golfer

by John Garrity

Posted: Wed August 18, 1998

Sports Illustrated 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.

  Vijay Singh
While swinging to a two-stroke win, Singh provided possible inspiration to a whole subcontinent of new players.    (John Biever)
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.

Issue date: August 24, 1998

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