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This time New Orleans was spared. The April storms that brought deadly twisters to the Deep South last week brought only a couple days of hot wet wind to New Orleans. The Zurich Classic's Wednesday pro-am was played in the worst of it. Vijay Singh didn't care. He has won the New Orleans stop before, in 2004, and his plan this year was to win it again. For the nearly six hours he spent in that pro-am, nothing was more important to Singh—a final practice round before the most important tournament of his life.
This week the Charlotte stop will be the most important tournament of his life. Next week it will be the Players. The week after that, Colonial. In his compulsive devotion, Vijay Singh is like a golfing monk. He's an evolving man. He's 48 now, physically healthy again after knee surgery two years ago, living apart from his wife, far warmer as a person than when he pushed Tiger Woods out as the No. 1 player for 32 weeks in 2004 and '05. But he's not looking for a second act. Singh plays tournament golf, and when he's not, he's working on his game, same as forever. He has already been to 11 events this year, showing in Phoenix and placing in Los Angeles. He's doing his life's work. Singh has been playing 30 events a year for three decades now, all over the world. He has played in 680 tournaments on the PGA and European tours and hundreds more in Asia, Africa, Australia and Japan. Except for Gary Player, who is 75, there might not be a person in the world who has played in more 72-hole events. And still, every time out it's like a new thing.
How many pro-am partners has he had over the decades? Thousands. He enjoyed the three men who drew him last week. "Hit it, don't pick it," Singh told one of them, way below sea level in a Pete Dye fairway bunker. The guy hit the shot of his life. On another hole Singh hit a drive, dead into a wind heavy as gravy, that went 310 yards. The ams were awed. Can you imagine the emotion and effort that takes, to hit a drive that hard when your team is hopelessly out of it and you're a Hall of Famer with tens of millions of dollars in the bank? Singh was not so impressed. "I could never hit a shot and not give it everything I have," he said later.
Singh ended his workday with a long session on the practice green. At 5 p.m. there were exactly three people still out there in the gray, hot air: Singh, his caddie and his fitness guy. Singh had to be back early the next morning for the first round of the Zurich, the first round of the rest of his life. "I hit it as good as anybody," Singh said last week. He was only being truthful. The caddies and the players will tell you the same thing. For pureness of strike, there's Fred Couples, there's Luke Donald, there's Sergio and Tiger and Phil. And there's Vijay. "If I putt, I can win anywhere," he said. He has never won the Players, played on the Stadium course, which he plays often (he lives nearby) but doesn't particularly like. He said, "I have a good feeling about this year."
Is it time to bury our images of ornery Vijay? The one who could, at times, be brutal on caddies and reporters and fans and even fellow players? Some of it, really, is pretty amusing, like the time he threatened to punch out Rocco Mediate and Rocco's buddy just for taking some balls from his special pile on the back of the range at the Stadium course. Singh has blown me off more times than I can count, and I've known him (though never well) since 1991, when he was a promising young player on the European tour with Sam Snead's rhythm and Ben Hogan's work ethic. A burial might be premature, but last week he was highly interesting, somewhat open and a total pleasure to watch. His backswing is astounding. Maybe for the normal person the eyes are the window to the soul, but for the elite golfer it's the backswing, and no player with distractions from the noise of modern life could make the languid move back that Singh does. It's possible that nothing could reveal more about Singh than his unhurried backswing.
Semiformal sit-down interviews, especially with someone who has been public property for a long time, are artifice. In general, people are putting on a show. Vijay was a surprise. He never said that he and his wife, Ardena, were separated, not in the legal sense, but he described their separate lives. He said Ardena and the couple's 20-year-old son, Qass, a sophomore at Fordham, are living in midtown Manhattan. "My wife loves that kind of living, the Broadway shows and the shopping," Singh said. "I don't like New York." He used the phrase "my wife" at least six times in a 55-minute interview. The Singh threesome, for 15 years a fixture at tournaments, used to share a spectacular oceanfront house in South Ponte Vedra, a few miles south of TPC Sawgrass. For many years Singh had a big blowout barbecue on the Monday night of Players week that was a fixture on the calendar of almost every steak-and-beer-loving player on Tour. There was often a Jay Gatsby moment when some clothed person would wind up in the pool.
But Singh moved out of the house more than a year ago, and the party died. Ardena and Qass are in the big house when they are in Ponte Vedra, and Vijay has moved to a large, hotel-like oceanfront condominium a few miles farther south. I asked if Ardena works in New York, and Singh said, "Oh, no." He described the active role she plays in Qass's life. He is studying business.
"He's my life, that kid. He's everything," Singh said. Fordham is a Jesuit university, and the chairman of IMG, Ted Forstmann, with whom Singh played for years in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, is involved in Jesuit education. I asked Singh if Forstmann pointed Vijay or Qass to Fordham. "No, [Qass] found it himself," Singh said. "He's like his mother, he loves New York. If I had pointed him there, he'd have gone somewhere else. If I say tic, he says tac." Father and son speak and text regularly, Singh said.
Forstmann and Singh do not. In 2004, when Forstmann bought IMG, his office in the sleek General Motors building in midtown had an Augusta National scorecard signed by Singh and photographs of him. Back then Vijay's name came up often in conversation, and Forstmann described Singh as a close friend. In August 2009 Singh left IMG, and that was the end of the association.
"It was a crazy relationship," Singh said. "We played golf together, but we never really talked that much." As Singh describes it, when they did talk, the conversation was about Forstmann's athletic career and family and business interests and not about Singh's life. Singh said he left IMG for professional reasons but that Forstmann took the departure as a personal rejection. The whole thing is surely murkier than that. For a while, Singh was intensely close to several people working for Forstmann, including the IMG agent Clarke Jones, and now he is not. Forstmann declined an invitation to talk about Singh.