- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

AUGUSTA, Ga. We seem to have underestimated Mr. Vijay Singh, Fiji's greatest golfer, living or dead.

The man might emote less than Steven Wright and have a game right out of Mechanics Illustrated, but he's obviously a whale of a player, unflappable even in the most knee-knocking of situations. Any guy who could hold off young glamour pusses David Duval, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods on the final day of the Masters is deserving of genuflection, if not cloning.

Until this past weekend, Singh was seen as a very talented player but not quite an elite one. He had won the PGA Championship at Sahalee in '98, but his main competition in the final round there was Steve Stricker. His three-stroke, going-away victory yesterday, though, puts him on an entirely different plateau. After all, he has contended twice in the U.S. Open and has tied for sixth in the British. Who's to say he won't complete a career Grand Slam before he saunters off to the Senior Tour? He's only 37.

But even winning two majors especially two different majors puts him in some pretty exclusive company. Mark O'Meara did it in the same year (1998), of course, and Woods has done it. So have the two Nicks, Price and Faldo, and dear departed Payne Stewart. But among current golfers, at least, it's a short list. The only others who come to mind are Seve Ballesteros, John Daly and Sandy Lyle (Jack Nicklaus belonging to another generation).

"If you win one [major], people can say you were lucky," Singh said. "But if you win twice… . [What's great about it is that] it makes you believe you can win a bunch more. I'd like to be able to win all of 'em by the time I'm done."

"He's a great player," said Duval. "I don't think anybody should be surprised that Vijay Singh won this golf tournament. He fits what everybody says you should be. He hits it long and straight, and he putted very well in the two rounds I played with him."

That's the biggest difference between the Singh of today and the Singh of a couple of years ago: his putting. He went to a cross-handed grip a few months before his PGA win, and it has changed his life. He's still very fickle as far as putters are concerned; he'll change to another one lickety-split if the ball isn't rolling in. "I have 1,000 putters at home," he said. "That's not an understatement." But he doesn't worry any more "about whether I'm going to pull it or push it. I'm more into my line now than my stroke."

Singh didn't play perfect golf yesterday, but then there aren't many no-hitters pitched at Augusta National, certainly not on Sunday. He got his ball wet on 11 and had two other bogeys, opening the door a crack for Duval on each occasion, but he never let his playing partner get much momentum. When Duval birdied 6, 8 and 9, Singh matched him. Then it was Duval's turn to hit it in the water on the par-5 13th and Singh doubled his displeasure by birdieing the hole and regaining the three-shot lead he began the day with. End of tournament. Els was closest to Singh at the end 7-under to Vijay's 10-under.

"I'm so happy for Vijay," said Woods, who got to 4-under on the front but never seriously threatened. "He works so hard on his game and the physical part of it."

That's kind of Singh's image as the player who leads the Tour in Buckets of Balls Hit. And it's essentially an accurate one. But he offered this clarification yesterday:

"There's a lot of talk about my practice hours. But really, I practice if I need to. This week I only practiced about a half-hour after my rounds because I was happy with the way I was playing. The thing is, my coach is in Sweden and doesn't get over to this country very much. So I have to do everything myself most of the time beat balls and figure out what's wrong with my swing."

That kind of self-reliance served Singh well this past weekend. The third round was particularly exasperating, beginning on Saturday in brutal wind and cold and ending early yesterday morning. Think it's just a coincidence that the guy who serves as his own coach, who grew up in a country with 12 golf courses, seemed to deal with the stress and strain better than other people? Singh's 70-69 finish, under the circumstances, has to rank as one of the gutsiest in Masters history.

"After we finished up [Saturday's round] this morning I had about a two-hour break I tried to play the [final] round in my head," he said. "I was thinking about what I needed to do on the golf course. I was very confident with a three-shot lead. I figured: As long as I play solid like I have all week, they have to come catch me."

Nobody did, of course. Not Duval. Not Els. Not even Tiger. And as the old champ, Jose Maria Olazabal, slipped the green jacket on the new champ, it was hard not to think: If these last 36 holes didn't unhinge Vijay Singh, nothing will ever again.

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