With an improved image, Singh leads his Cup team

Golf

September 22, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun reporter

GAINESVILLE, VA. — Vijay Singh has been accused of being everything from a cheater to a sexist during his professional golf career, charges that could have derailed a player with less talent or resolve.

At 42, Singh is now called something else: the best player in the world not named Tiger Woods.

With Ernie Els sidelined after undergoing knee surgery in July, Singh will also need to be the leader of an International team trying to beat the Americans for the first time on their home turf in the Presidents Cup.

It's not a role that Singh relishes, and admittedly he would rather let non-playing captain Gary Player be in charge when the four-day competition begins today at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.

"I'm probably the strongest player on the team," Singh said last week. "But at the same time, the captain runs the whole team, and he's actually the force behind everything else. He's a good leader, and we kind of sit back and take a back seat when he's up there."

Still, for the International team to regain the trophy after the teams played to a 17-17 tie two years ago in South Africa, Singh will certainly have to perform better than he did when the event was last held here.

In 2000, Singh lost four of the five matches in which he played, and the International team was thumped, 21 1/2 -10 1/2 . But Singh is a much different player now than he was then.

At an age when many on the PGA Tour usually start the downward spiral toward turning 50, Singh is competing at the highest level. Last season, he won nine times and interrupted a run of five straight Player of the Year awards by Woods. Singh took away the world's No. 1 ranking that Woods has since regained.

This year, Singh has won four times, one fewer than Woods, who this week was named Player of the Year for the seventh time in nine years.

"I thought I played better this year," said Singh, who finished in the top 10 at each of the four majors. "I had a lot of opportunities to win. I think the edge was a little less than last year. The putting part didn't show up at the right time, and I just made a few mistakes at the wrong time."

When his back started acting up last month, Singh came to the realization that all those years of grinding for hours on the practice range and all those weeks he played when others took off might have finally begun to catch up with him.

"Maybe I played too much, who knows?" said Singh, who has averaged more than 27 tournaments a year since 1999 compared with 19 for Woods. "Sometimes you have to back off and have a look at what's going on. I thought this back injury was going to put me out for a while. Maybe it was a good chance to really think over what I was doing wrong."

The back problem cleared up quickly and though Singh couldn't defend his title at a tournament outside Boston, it made him realize that, if anything, the injury might have been the result of curtailing his often compulsive routine that in recent years also included grueling off-course workouts.

"I think discipline is what I need," he said. "I need to keep going with my physical side. ... I stopped hitting as much balls as I used to. Maybe I should go back and start doing that and do a lot of workouts."

Another thing that enabled Singh to reach the No. 1 ranking was the fact that he wasn't stretched in terms of his outside commitments. That, too, started to change this year, as Singh became more visible in commercials and noticeably more approachable to media as well as his peers.

"He's closer [now] in public to what he is, and people are starting to see the lighter side of Vijay," said Fred Funk, a neighbor of Singh's in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who'll be teamed against him in one of today's six foursome matches. "He just shut everybody out before."

Before, it usually took only for Singh to open his mouth.

"Everything he said, he spoke his mind about Annika [Sorenstam] or whatever, it was turned around and he became the evil guy," Funk said. "Maybe 99 percent of the guys thought the same thing, but they didn't have the nerve to say it."

Singh had been that way for most of his career, starting when he was accused of purposely signing an incorrect scorecard while playing on the Asian Tour. The biggest flare-up came when he said that Sorenstam shouldn't play in a PGA Tour event, at Colonial in 2003.

"You see myself like I see you guys [in the media] over here, very serious," Singh said during a news conference at last week's 84 Lumber Classic.

Recently, he has been compared to the legendary Ben Hogan because of his caustic personality, his blue-collar approach to practicing and, to an extent, his dominance at times on the course. Singh's stern look softens when the comparison to Hogan is made.

"I never had a chance to actually see him hit the ball, but I've seen a lot of footage of him practicing and how intense he was," Singh said. "In that sense, I've taken a lot of notes on how he practiced and what he did, and he liked to be totally alone when he worked out. I can only be myself."

don.markus@baltsun.com

PRESIDENTS CUP : Today-Sunday, Prince William County, Va. Course: Robert Trent Jones Golf Club (7,335, par 72) TV: NBC/ TNT (today, 1-6 p.m., TNT; Friday, noon-6 p.m., TNT; Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., NBC; Sunday, noon-6 p.m., NBC).

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