- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When the star wars begin tomorrow at the 69th Masters, there’s no doubt who will be playing the role of Darth Vader.

Vijay Singh is gruff. Lefty signs autographs. Vijay signs checks.

He’s tactless. When the rest of the golf world was scoring diplomacy points rooting for Annika Sorenstam at the 2003 Colonial, Singh wanted her sent home before the weekend.

He’s contentious. When Tiger Woods wished him good luck on the first tee before their final-round duel at the 2003 American Express Championship, Singh famously responded: “Titleist 2.”

He’s vindictive. After winning his second major championship at the 2000 Masters, Singh’s final words to Augusta National, delivered at dusk in the players’ parking lot, were “kiss my [rear], everybody.”

He also has been by far the best golfer on the planet over the last two years, rocketing past Woods as the world No. 1 by piling up 14 wins, a major (2005 PGA) and 33 other top-five finishes with a sublime scoring average of 69.18.

And his presence at the top of the world rankings is undeniably good for golf.

For one thing, Singh was the first to pick up the gauntlet Tiger threw down during his mystifying run from 1999 through 2002, a four-year stretch in which Woods won 27 tournaments and seven majors. As brilliant as Woods was during his run, he was threatening to make the game competitively boring. Singh responded with his two-year blitz, vaulting the massive emotional hurdles constructed of Woods’ invincibility and clearing the way for Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson to follow in his wake.

The result is a world golf landscape now dominated by four McKinleys, not one Everest.

“I think it’s really great for golf right now that every one of us is playing well,” Singh said yesterday. “They compare us to Nicklaus, Palmer and Player or Hogan and Snead and Byron Nelson — those eras. It’s a part of history, you know. And when I’m through with my career, I’m going to look back and say, ‘Hey, I was a part of that little chapter in golf.’ And I’m enjoying that because I’m on top of it all. … I love being No. 1. There’s no hiding that.”

There’s also no hiding that Singh revels in his status as the game’s current heavy. He would much rather be respected and feared than popular and revered. There were times in the past when Singh suffered silently over his image, when talk of his infamous scorecard-altering episode at the 1985 Indonesian Open led to outsider status on the cliquish tour and his cruel nickname: the Cheatin’ Fijian. Those days are gone for the 42-year-old superstar, who still privately claims the entire incident was a misunderstanding.

“I know Vijay doesn’t give a hoot what anybody thinks about him anymore,” Presidents Cup teammate Stuart Appleby said yesterday. “Even more than Tiger, he has a one-track mind — winning. He isn’t concerned about his image. In fact, I think he gets a chuckle out of his persona as the heavy. And if it helps him win golf tournaments, he’s not going to try and change it.”

Perhaps it helps Singh win golf tournaments in the same way it helped Woods not so long ago; many of Singh’s foes perceive him as a heartless, ball-beating machine. Stand in his way at your own peril.

“I do sense a new murmur when I’m making a run out on the course,” said Singh. “I hear the galleries say, ‘There he goes again,’ and I know players are thinking it, too. I love that.”

Of course he does; Singh is a natural intimidator. Woods never had a chance of maintaining that image because he has Buicks and Rolexes to sell. How frightened can you be of a man who talks to headcovers?

Singh has no such corporate strings attached to his personality. He’s free to be the glaring, unapproachable force whose closest friends are his six German shepherds. He’s free to stalk the tour with wife, Ardena, and son, Qass, bearing his bags in his wake. He’s free to speak his mind without making concessions for diplomacy or conventional wisdom.

And frankly, the game has long needed a heavy. It’s well known that fans like rooting against players and teams almost as much as they like rooting for others. But golf has had few villains relative to other sports. Major vulture Nick Faldo had his moments. Tom Weiskopf and Raymond Floyd were notoriously prickly. Before his life-threatening car accident, Ben Hogan wasn’t exactly huggable.

But generally, golf truly has been a gentleman’s game over the years.

There doesn’t appear to be a gentle bone in Singh’s body.

Perhaps no player of hall of fame caliber has donned the game’s black hat with such indifferent ease, and golf is infinitely more interesting because of it.

“I don’t have any worries,” said Singh, who all week has matter of factly predicted his second green jacket Sunday. “What can be better? I’m here at the Masters, the best player in the world right now and ready to win another one.”

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