Vijay Singh swings the golf club like Iron Byron and is often thought to have about as much personality. Over the past two decades he has been the game's international man of mystery, collecting victories on five continents but precious few supporters along the way. A slave to his Hoganesque practice habits, Singh arrived on the U.S. Tour in 1992, and few of his colleagues knew 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� hours each way to Augusta to deliver to Singh his favorite Thai dinners six nights in a row. Also in the middle of the back-slapping 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, page 88). 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."