Singh's work habits yield masterful return

Second major reveals more content champ

April 11, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Charlie Niyomkul noticed a change in Vijay Singh's demeanor in the past few weeks. Singh seemed more at ease with himself, more comfortable with those outside his small circle of friends. Niyomkul, who has known Singh for many years, thought of a conversation he had with Singh earlier this year.

"I told him that he was working too hard, that he wasn't enjoying himself," Niyomkul said Sunday night, as Singh was a few yards away accepting the green jacket for winning the 64th Masters at Augusta National. "I think he's been a lot happier and it showed with the way he played here."

Singh, 37, let little bother him during his run at a second major championship.

He seemed unperturbed by Saturday's rain delay or the high winds and chilling temperatures that followed as he was building a three-shot lead over David Duval. He seemed unfazed by the challenges made Sunday by Duval and others in contention, including Tiger Woods.

When he secured a three-shot win over Ernie Els with a final birdie putt on the 18th green, he was not overcome by emotion, but by utter joy. It was evident when he hugged his 9-year-old son Qass behind the green and later his wife, Ardena.

"It's nice to have my wife and my little boy with me," Singh said later. "Even if you have a bad day, it's nice to see a little boy smiling at you."

There was a time when Singh's life was in great turmoil. Born to Indian parents in Fiji, Singh grew up knowing what it was like to be treated as a second-class citizen. He was made aware of the island's history, where the Indians had been brought there to be indentured servants.

With the help of his father, Mohan, who worked refueling planes at a local airport, Singh and his three brothers started playing golf at a nine-hole course. "He was a good golfer," Singh said of his father, who now lives in New Zealand. "We always took over his second-hand clubs. All the credit goes to him for giving me the opportunity."

After turning pro at 17 and establishing himself as one of the top players in the country of 500,000 people, only a small percentage of whom play golf, Singh joined the Australian tour and won a number of tournaments.

During the 1985 Indonesian Open, Singh was accused of altering his scorecard and was suspended from the tour. He has denied the allegation. He found a job for $200 a month as a club pro in Borneo, where he and his wife lived in a one-room apartment.

It was in Borneo that Singh developed his now long-standing reputation as a grinder who stayed on the practice range until his hands bled. Aside from giving a handful of lessons a day, there was not much to do aside from practicing.

"It was really hard," said Singh. "I mean it was 100 degrees every day, no matter if it's raining or if the sun is shining. That's just what I wanted to do, get back on tour and spend two years trying to earn a living doing that. When I had a chance, I went to Europe. The practice really paid off."

Singh made his way from the European PGA Tour to the PGA Tour in 1993. He won the Buick Classic that year, was named rookie of the year and began to establish himself as one of the best ball-strikers. His marathon sessions on the practice range became legendary.

"I've never seen anyone work so hard," said former British and PGA champion Nick Price, a Zimbabwean who knew Singh from the Australian tour. "I once said, `I'm going to stay out on the range as long as he does.' I couldn't do it, and I stayed for five hours."

Said Singh: "You know there's a lot of talk about my practice hours. It is true. I practice a lot when I need to. On tour, I don't do that. Over the last four or five years, I have spent a lot of time on the range because at that time I didn't have a coach and I had to do everything myself to figure out what I was doing and how to improve."

He saw results. Singh jumped to ninth in 1995 with over $1 million in earnings and victories in the Buick Classic and Phoenix Open. He finished second on the money list with over $2.2 million two years ago, when he won the PGA Championship.

Last year, Singh was fourth on the money list with over $2.3 million, but saw his streak of 53 straight cuts end. It happened at the Masters, where Singh had problems with the greens in shooting 78 and 80. "I could never get a good feel on the greens," he said last week. Previously, his best finish was a tie for 17th in 1997.

Singh admittedly has had trouble with his putter, collecting more than 1,000 of them and discarding them when the results were disappointing. Even the putter he used here had been put away for a round at the Tournament Players Championship.

Asked when he usually changes putters, Singh said, "When it stops going in, I get something that will."

Having gone to a cross-handed style with his left hand low on the shaft a few months before his PGA Championship, Singh seems more at ease on the greens. But it was Singh's ball-striking at Augusta, and his touch just off the greens that helped him win.

As calm as he appeared on the course, Singh admitted that he felt a bit out of place as he walked the fairways and heard fans calling his name. He is, even among his friends, an incredibly quiet, introspective man who many perceive as arrogant.

"He's very shy," said Niyomkul, who owns a Thai restaurant and will help prepare the champion's dinner next year. "It's hard for him to be outgoing."

Now that he has won the Masters, the demands on Singh's time will be greater. But you can count on Singh not changing his lifestyle much, still spending more time on the practice range than most elite players. Dave Remwick, who has caddied for Singh the past three years, used to hear other players snicker about Singh's work ethic.

"They used to laugh, but they're not laughing now," said Remwick, a Scotsman who caddied for Jose Maria Olazabal during his Masters win in 1994. "He's proven the hard work has paid off."

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