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John Garrity
August 19, 1996
Fiji's Vijay Singh has always been reluctant to discuss his early years as a pro, and for good reason
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August 19, 1996

Past Tense

Fiji's Vijay Singh has always been reluctant to discuss his early years as a pro, and for good reason

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They must be dancing in the streets in Fiji.
—TV voice at last week's PGA Championship, where Fiji's Vijay Singh came within an eyelash of becoming the first player of color to win a major championship.

It's June 1996, and no one is dancing. In fact, the prime minister of Fiji looks exasperated. Like many in his Polynesian island republic, Sitiveni Rabuka appears torn between admiration for Singh—"Fiji's only sports millionaire"—and peeve that the expatriate golfer seems not to care what anybody in his homeland thinks. "Don't pay too much attention to the negative feelings we have," says the prime minister, looking fresh after 18 holes at Fiji's Denarau Island resort. "I know Vijay personally; that's why I can't say more nice things about him."

Anyone looking for a hint of irony in the eyes of Fiji's strongman will be disappointed. But Rabuka (pronounced ram-BOO-ka)—described in that morning's Fiji Sunday Post as "the world's most dashing coup leader"—is a golfer himself, an almost daily visitor to the Fiji Golf Club in Suva, the capital. He is also honorary president of the Fiji Professional Golfers Association. So while he might bristle when he hears that Singh has set foot in Fiji only twice in 16 years and fume when he reads that Singh thinks Fiji is no place to raise his six-year-old son, he must consider also that the tall, handsome Singh hits a two-iron about as well as anybody on earth.

That's why Rabuka recently sent Singh a Fijian diplomatic passport—an honorary device allowing one to sweep through immigration channels and past border guards. Rabuka wonders, however, if he will get even a thank-you note from Singh, who now splits his time between homes in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and London.

"He's flying the Fiji flag out of convenience, I think," says Rabuka, who seized power in a 1987 putsch and quickly raised himself from the rank of lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. "He's not very keen on coming back. He said Fiji was a nice place to visit, but he didn't want to live here."

The prime minister, barely sweating after shooting 76 on the two-year-old Denarau course, breathes deeply of the trade winds cooling the open-walled club bar. He stares out at the palm-lined fairways and green mountain backdrop as if intent on discerning what would keep a true Fijian away. Specifically, he wonders why Singh's last visit, in February, was only a whirlwind stop for a farcical skins game organized by Vijay's older brother, Krishna. "I wish Vijay could come back and live here," Rabuka says, "so our people could see and learn from a man who approaches his sport with such professionalism."

That seems unlikely. Opportunities for professional golfers are few in the Republic of Fiji, which has a population of 750,000 and only 11 courses, most of them scruffy, nine-hole tracks. But surely, an overseas visitor ventures, the prime minister is heartened by Singh's recent promise to fund a junior golf program in Fiji, a national system to identify and train the Vijay Singhs of the future. Rabuka snorts. "I'll believe it when I see it," he says. "I don't think he's sincere."

Let's go back to May of this year. Vijay Singh, 33 and prosperous, is having an iced tea in the grill room of the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach. He would rather be out under the high sun hitting balls on the practice range—this is not surmise, he says so—but he has agreed to an interview. This is an act of extreme sacrifice for Singh, who is known for curt replies, or no replies, when reporters approach him at a tournament. But here he is, pleasant and well mannered. Then the interviewer asks about Fiji, and Singh's shoulders pull back reflexively.

"I've been asked a hundred times how I started golf," he says, obviously reluctant to rehash what is, in fact, a pretty good tale. Is it because he anticipates the questions that must inevitably be asked? About Jakarta, 1985? The cheating allegation and his subsequent suspension from the Asian tour? His two years in exile as a club pro in the rain forests of Borneo? The Australian debts he took years to repay?

Singh couches his defensive-ness in clichés. He says, "I like my clubs to do the talking." Well, of course. Singh is comfortable with what his clubs say about him. They say he has won tournaments in Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. They say that he has won three tournaments on the U.S. Tour in three years, that he was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1993 and that he has climbed as high as 12th in the Sony World Ranking and is currently 17th. His tie for fifth in last week's PGA was not his first close call in a major. He finished in a tie for sixth in the 1995 British Open and was 11th at Royal Lytham and St. Annes this year. He was fourth in the 1993 PGA and tied for seventh in this year's U.S. Open.

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