With a decisive victory in some of the toughest conditions ever at the Masters, Vijay Singh earned his second major title -- and perhaps a new measure of respect
Posted: Tuesday April 11, 2000 02:41 PMBy Alan Shipnuck
what to make of this lone wolf. He preferred beating balls to making small talk, and his immediate success -- he had six top 10 finishes and ended up at 19th on the money list that first year on the Tour -- only made him that much more unapproachable.
Singh was long ago written off by reporters as the worst interview in the sport, and even the most respectful of golf fans have remained indifferent to him. On Sunday evening Singh, 37, was strolling up the 18th fairway at Augusta National, having wrapped up his second major championship in 20 months, and the gallery lining the hole afforded little more than polite applause to this tall, dark and handsome stranger, grudging recognition of a sublime display of smashmouth golf.
But running parallel to Singh, cutting a swath through the crowd on the left side of the fairway, was a group making a noisy rebuttal to those who think Singh, a native of Fiji, is an island unto himself. A motley crew of more than a dozen friends and family members shadowed Singh up the 18th, and they were as jubilant as he was reserved. They shouted, "Vijay is for victory!" over and over, hugged and kissed and pounded one another on the back and cried more than a little. The rooting section included Singh's warm, chatty wife, Ardena, who has been with him since the mid-1980s, when he was a teaching pro in Borneo, where their water was drawn from a well and the nearest town was three hours away by dirt road; their son, Qass, 9, to whom Vijay is so attached that he insisted on bringing him along to the champion's press conference; and Nan and Charlie Niyomkul, married Atlanta restaurateurs by way of Bangkok whom Singh met in the early '90s. The Niyomkuls remain so devoted to their friend that they drove 2 1/2 hours each way to Augusta to deliver to Singh his favorite Thai dinners six nights in a row. Also in the middle of the backslapping pack were Singh's swing coach, Farid Guedra, a French-speaking Algerian whom Singh met in Nigeria in 1988 during a stop on the South African tour and who traveled from his home in Sweden to offer support; and assorted friends and business associates from Florida and Ohio and who knows where else. This United Nations of backers helped inspire Singh to a three-stroke victory, the 27th and most important of his far-flung career, surpassing even his '98 PGA Championship.
"It's an incredibly warm feeling," Singh said late on Sunday night following the traditional champion's dinner, where he broke bread with his family and friends in the Augusta clubhouse, surrounded by the club's membership. "I have never felt more accepted, or more at home."
Acceptance has been an issue for Singh ever since a nebulous 1985 incident in Jakarta in which he was accused of altering his scorecard in order to make the cut at a tournament, an allegation he denies. At the mention of Singh's name last week one American Ryder Cupper sniffed, "Once a cheater, always a cheater. Golf has a long memory."
That a player long considered a loner and something of an outcast has such devoted friends was but one of the revelations to come out of this Masters. Another was that there is more to his game than peerless ball striking. Singh led the field in greens in regulation, as he often does, but more impressive was a series of recovery shots and clutch putts that trumped David Duval in a nerve-jangling showdown that lasted much of the final round.
Three times on the front nine Singh topped Duval birdies with birdies of his own, and a trio of spectacular up-and-downs -- one to make a par on the 7th hole and another out of the much-feared back bunker on 12, as well as a bogey save on 11 after plunking his approach in the pond -- allowed him to take a one-stroke lead into the 13th, the short, do-or-die par-5 where so many Masters are lost and won. Singh tamed the hole with two merciless swings, leading to a two-putt birdie, while Duval drowned his second shot in Rae's Creek, a miscue that is sure to dominate the movie screen of his imagination for innumerable nights to come. Duval's bogey pushed Singh's lead to three strokes, and it would never again dip below two.
Singh had more than just home cooking working for him at the 64th Masters. He was also helped by a course setup that dramatically altered the flavor of the Annual Augusta Spring Putting Contest, as Johnny Miller used to derisively call the tournament. The first cut of rough, introduced last year to much hand-wringing, had been expanded significantly to pinch the landing areas on some of Augusta National's twisty fairways. Deeper, fluffier sand was also added to the bunkers, serving up more fried eggs than the local Waffle House. Augusta, always an expansive canvas for freewheeling artistic expression, was suddenly more like the kind of punitive setup typical of a U.S. Open (The Life of Reilly). Throw in a swirling wind on Thursday that gusted to 25 miles per hour, and only a pair of big-boned Yankee ball-strikers could break 70 -- Dennis Paulson, with a 68, and Tom Lehman, at 69. Singh hit an exceptional 16 of 18 greens and ground out a 72.
It was in Thursday afternoon's breeze that Tiger Woods blew his chance for victory. He hung up a 75, his worst score of the year by two strokes. Woods had stormed into Augusta having finished first or second in 10 of his previous 11 tournaments, a stretch of such sustained dominance that at last month's Players Championship, Colin Montgomerie, third in the World Ranking, went on record saying he felt as if he were playing for second place in Woods's presence. A sure sign that Woods wasn't going to win this Masters merely by showing up came when he doinked a tree with his first shot of the tournament. He later double-bogeyed the 10th hole and then made a triple bogey at the par-3 12th, rinsing his tee shot in the creek and then, following a penalty drop, three-putting from 12 feet. It was Woods's first triple in 541 holes.
The weather on Friday turned out to be far more benign, but Woods couldn't take advantage of it, fighting his putter on the way to a lackluster 72. (He made the cut by only one stroke.) Singh, meanwhile, buried four birdie putts of 10 feet or more, including a 35-foot bomb at the 9th, and shot a 67 to move to five under for the tournament. Singh's struggles on the greens are legendary; he claims to have a thousand putters at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. ("That's not an exaggeration, either," he says.) His renaissance on the greens at Augusta was sparked by a putter he picked up at the L.A. Open in February, an ugly thing called a Dandy, as well as a new touchy-feely attitude. Singh grew up studying pictures of the swing of Tom Weiskopf, the brilliant shotmaker whose spotty putting doomed him to four runner-up finishes at Augusta, and he was determined not to go down that road. "I've decided to try enjoying putting more than hating it," said Singh, who says he's an avid reader of self-help books. "If I have a bad attitude on the greens, I may as well not come here."
Singh's 67 left him two strokes shy of the midway leader, Duval, who on Friday fired the low round of the tournament, a bogeyless 65. Duval came to Augusta with much to prove. Last year he rode into the Masters atop the World Ranking, having chalked up four victories in the previous three months, including the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which he won with an historic 59. Duval was within one shot of the lead on Sunday a year ago at Augusta when he dumped a four-iron into the pond at 11, the portal to Amen Corner, and he hasn't been the same player since. He went winless over the rest of 1999, sidetracked by controversies large and small. He showed up for this season with a new body and a new attitude -- "Every regular Tour event to David is now just preparation for the majors," says his sports psychologist, Bob Rotella. Still, no victories would come during the season's first three months, and when he was asked recently about his rivalry with Woods, Duval said, "Not much of a rivalry these days, is it?"
Duval had been so focused on the Masters, and on finally getting off the schneid, that when he arrived at the course in advance of the tournament, "it was like a load had been lifted," he said. "I felt like, It's time to relax and enjoy myself and go play." His version of relaxing meant heavy sessions of weightlifting on Monday and Tuesday, each preceded by a couple of miles of running "just to warm up" and then a six-mile jog the day before the tournament began.
All of Duval's maniacal training couldn't prepare him for the hardships of Saturday, one of the most vexing weather days in the tournament's history. The morning began overcast and eerily still, and Woods took full advantage. Going out at 10:10 (an hour when he is usually just crawling out of bed and pouring himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs), Woods strung together four birdies from the 7th hole through the 10th to get back to even par before his momentum was halted by heavy rains. After a two-hour delay play was resumed in a steady drizzle, and in the soft conditions he finished his 68, tied for low round of the day, to move to one under for the tournament. Woods completed his round at around 4 p.m., just as the leaders were teeing off, which also happened to coincide with the arrival of a cold front that dropped the temperature 16° in 15 minutes, to 53° with a windchill in the 40s, and brought gusts up to 42 mph. Unattended folding chairs skittered across the course like tumbleweeds, and enough bunker sand was sent airborne that it was like playing golf in the middle of The Grapes of Wrath. Jack Nicklaus, competing in his 41st Masters, said, "These are by far the toughest conditions I've seen here."
In these extreme elements Singh played his most heroic golf of the tournament, hitting 12 of 14 greens (the round would be curtailed due to darkness), and birdieing the treacherous 12th hole, as well as three others, to move to seven under, three up on Duval, who played credibly but for a wind-plagued double bogey at 12. Singh credited his outstanding shotmaking to "good solid strikes to the ball," a technique he perfected growing up in Fiji, when during low tide he would hit balls on the flat, firm sand of the beach, excellent practice for the tight lies of Augusta's buzz-cut fairways.
When the third round resumed in the biting cold of Sunday morning, both Duval and Singh parred in, setting the stage for Sunday's dramatics. Duval gave valiant chase, but his hopes ended at the 13th when he had only 197 yards to the pin but caught a five-iron heavy and blocked it into the creek. "It was just a bad golf shot, and it was the wrong time to do it," a curt Duval said. "I really don't know what else to say." His final-round 70 left him in a tie for third place. (Ernie Els, with a strong 68 on Sunday, sneaked into second. Woods never mounted a serious Sunday charge, shooting 69 to finish fifth.)
On the 25th anniversary of Lee Elder's shattering the race barrier at the Masters, Singh became the second man of color to win the tournament in the past four years. He, too, knows of racial prejudice, but it came not in the Jim Crow South but rather in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Singh is a Fijian of Indian extraction, a descendant of Hindus and Muslims from the subcontinent, subjected to the island's state-sanctioned discrimination. (Indians, for example, cannot hold the office of president or prime minister.) Singh is by far the biggest sports star the country has produced, but he has returned to Fiji no more than a handful of times since embarking on his professional career two decades ago. This estrangement from his homeland has helped cloud Singh's image. He has been miscast as a golfing mercenary, with houses in Florida and London but no real home.
In Singh's mind his victory at the PGA two years ago went a long way toward rehabbing his reputation. Perhaps with his joyous Masters victory Singh will finally feel comfortable introducing a kinder, gentler version of himself to the golfing public. Loren Roberts, who tied Duval for third, said after Sunday's finale, "He's a great champion, a deserving champion. I think a lot of people misunderstand Vijay. He's not aloof, but genuine. He doesn't give you a lot of b.s., which I like. Above all, Vijay loves the game and respects the game, and that is evident in his dedication to improving and in the way he conducts himself."
It was well after 11 o'clock on Sunday night when Singh finally left the Augusta National clubhouse, having indulged a series of TV interviewers and autograph seekers. He was slowly making his way to the players' parking lot, carrying his golf bag on his left shoulder and holding his golf shoes in his right hand. Singh's friends were waiting for him back at his hotel room to continue the celebration, and he was looking forward to joining them. These are the people who know him as an incorrigible prankster, who indulge his love of James Bond movies and of -- brace yourself -- Fleetwood Mac. These are the loved ones who cluck when they recount how Singh dotes on his six German shepherds. For the rest of us, this is the Singh we know: His back is turned, and he is disappearing into the darkness.
Issue date: April 17, 2000