Vijay Day With a decisive victory in some of the toughest conditions ever at the Masters, Vijay Singh earned his second major title--and perhaps a new measure of respect

April 16, 2000

Vijay Singh swings the golf club like Iron Byron and is often
thought to have about as much personality. Over the past two
decades he has been the game's international man of mystery,
collecting victories on five continents but precious few
supporters along the way. A slave to his Hoganesque practice
habits, Singh arrived on the U.S. Tour in 1992, and few of his
colleagues knew what to make of this lone wolf. He preferred
beating balls to making small talk, and his immediate
success--he had six top 10 finishes and ended up at 19th on the
money list that first year on the Tour--only made him that much
more unapproachable.

Singh was long ago written off by reporters as the worst
interview in the sport, and even the most respectful of golf
fans have remained indifferent to him. On Sunday evening Singh,
37, was strolling up the 18th fairway at Augusta National,
having wrapped up his second major championship in 20 months,
and the gallery lining the hole afforded little more than polite
applause to this tall, dark and handsome stranger, grudging
recognition of a sublime display of smashmouth golf.

But running parallel to Singh, cutting a swath through the crowd
on the left side of the fairway, was a group making a noisy
rebuttal to those who think Singh, a native of Fiji, is an
island unto himself. A motley crew of more than a dozen friends
and family members shadowed Singh up the 18th, and they were as
jubilant as he was reserved. They shouted, "Vijay is for
victory!" over and over, hugged and kissed and pounded one
another on the back and cried more than a little. The rooting
section included Singh's warm, chatty wife, Ardena, who has been
with him since the mid-1980s, when he was a teaching pro in
Borneo, where their water was drawn from a well and the nearest
town was three hours away by dirt road; their son, Qass, 9, to
whom Vijay is so attached that he insisted on bringing him along
to the champion's press conference; and Nan and Charlie
Niyomkul, married Atlanta restaurateurs by way of Bangkok whom
Singh met in the early '90s. The Niyomkuls remain so devoted to
their friend that they drove 2 1/2 hours each way to Augusta to
deliver to Singh his favorite Thai dinners six nights in a row.
Also in the middle of the backslapping pack wereSingh's swing
coach, Farid Guedra, a French-speaking Algerian whom Singh met
in Nigeria in 1988 during a stop on the South African tour and
who traveled from his home in Sweden to offer support; and
assorted friends and business associates from Florida and Ohio
and who knows where else. This United Nations of backers helped
inspire Singh to a three-stroke victory, the 27th and most
important of his far-flung career, surpassing even his '98 PGA
Championship.

"It's an incredibly warm feeling," Singh said late on Sunday
night following the traditional champion's dinner, where he
broke bread with his family and friends in the Augusta
clubhouse, surrounded by the club's membership. "I have never
felt more accepted, or more at home."

Acceptance has been an issue for Singh ever since a nebulous
1985 incident in Jakarta in which he was accused of altering his
scorecard in order to make the cut at a tournament, an
allegation he denies. At the mention of Singh's name last week
one American Ryder Cupper sniffed, "Once a cheater, always a
cheater. Golf has a long memory."

That a player long considered a loner and something of an
outcast has such devoted friends was but one of the revelations
to come out of this Masters. Another was that there is more to
his game than peerless ball striking. Singh led the field in
greens in regulation, as he often does, but more impressive was
a series of recovery shots and clutch putts that trumped David
Duval in a nerve-jangling showdown that lasted much of the final
round.

Three times on the front nine Singh topped Duval birdies with
birdies of his own, and a trio of spectacular up-and-downs--one
to make a par on the 7th hole and another out of the much-feared
back bunker on 12, as well as a bogey save on 11 after plunking
his approach in the pond--allowed him to take a one-stroke lead
into the 13th, the short, do-or-die par-5 where so many Masters
are lost and won. Singh tamed the hole with two merciless
swings, leading to a two-putt birdie, while Duval drowned his
second shot in Rae's Creek, a miscue that is sure to dominate
the movie screen of his imagination for innumerable nights to
come. Duval's bogey pushed Singh's lead to three strokes, and it
would never again dip below two.

Singh had more than just home cooking working for him at the
64th Masters. He was also helped by a course setup that
dramatically altered the flavor of the Annual Augusta Spring
Putting Contest, as Johnny Miller used to derisively call the
tournament. The first cut of rough, introduced last year to much
hand-wringing, had been expanded significantly to pinch the
landing areas on some of Augusta National's twisty fairways.
Deeper, fluffier sand was also added to the bunkers, serving up
more fried eggs than the local Waffle House. Augusta, always an
expansive canvas for freewheeling artistic expression, was
suddenly more like the kind of punitive setup typical of a U.S.
Open (THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 88). Throw in a swirling wind on
Thursday that gusted to 25 miles per hour, and only a pair of
big-boned Yankee ball-strikers could break 70--Dennis Paulson,
with a 68, and Tom Lehman, at 69. Singh hit an exceptional 16 of
18 greens and ground out a 72.

It was in Thursday afternoon's breeze that Tiger Woods blew his
chance for victory. He hung up a 75, his worst score of the year
by two strokes. Woods had stormed into Augusta having finished
first or second in 10 of his previous 11 tournaments, a stretch
of such sustained dominance that at last month's Players
Championship, Colin Montgomerie, third in the World Ranking,
went on record saying he felt as if he were playing for second
place in Woods's presence. A sure sign that Woods wasn't going
to win this Masters merely by showing up came when he doinked a
tree with his first shot of the tournament. He later
double-bogeyed the 10th hole and then made a triple bogey at the
par-3 12th, rinsing his tee shot in the creek and then,
following a penalty drop, three-putting from 12 feet. It was
Woods's first triple in 541 holes.

The weather on Friday turned out to be far more benign, but
Woods couldn't take advantage of it, fighting his putter on the
way to a lackluster 72. (He made the cut by only one stroke.)
Singh, meanwhile, buried four birdie putts of 10 feet or more,
including a 35-foot bomb at the 9th, and shot a 67 to move to
five under for the tournament. Singh's struggles on the greens
are legendary; he claims to have a thousand putters at his home
in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. ("That's not an exaggeration,
either," he says.) His renaissance on the greens at Augusta was
sparked by a putter he picked up at the L.A. Open in February,
an ugly thing called a Dandy, as well as a new touchy-feely
attitude. Singh grew up studying pictures of the swing of Tom
Weiskopf, the brilliant shotmaker whose spotty putting doomed
him to four runner-up finishes at Augusta, and he was determined
not to go down that road. "I've decided to try enjoying putting
more than hating it," said Singh, who says he's an avid reader
of self-help books. "If I have a bad attitude on the greens, I
may as well not come here."

Singh's 67 left him two strokes shy of the midway leader, Duval,
who on Friday fired the low round of the tournament, a bogeyless
65. Duval came to Augusta with much to prove. Last year he rode
into the Masters atop the World Ranking, having chalked up four
victories in the previous three months, including the Bob Hope
Chrysler Classic, which he won with an historic 59. Duval was
within one shot of the lead on Sunday a year ago at Augusta when
he dumped a four-iron into the pond at 11, the portal to Amen
Corner, and he hasn't been the same player since. He went
winless over the rest of 1999, sidetracked by controversies
large and small. He showed up for this season with a new body
and a new attitude--"Every regular Tour event to David is now
just preparation for the majors," says his sports psychologist,
Bob Rotella. Still, no victories would come during the season's
first three months, and when he was asked recently about his
rivalry with Woods, Duval said, "Not much of a rivalry these
days, is it?"

Duval had been so focused on the Masters, and on finally getting
off the schneid, that when he arrived at the course in advance
of the tournament, "it was like a load had been lifted," he
said. "I felt like, It's time to relax and enjoy myself and go
play." His version of relaxing meant heavy sessions of
weightlifting on Monday and Tuesday, each preceded by a couple
of miles of running "just to warm up" and then a six-mile jog
the day before the tournament began.

All of Duval's maniacal training couldn't prepare him for the
hardships of Saturday, one of the most vexing weather days in
the tournament's history. The morning began overcast and eerily
still, and Woods took full advantage. Going out at 10:10 (an
hour when he is usually just crawling out of bed and pouring
himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs), Woods strung together four
birdies from the 7th hole through the 10th to get back to even
par before his momentum was halted by heavy rains. After a
two-hour delay play was resumed in a steady drizzle, and in the
soft conditions he finished his 68, tied for low round of the
day, to move to one under for the tournament. Woods completed
his round at around 4 p.m., just as the leaders were teeing off,
which also happened to coincide with the arrival of a cold front
that dropped the temperature 16[degrees] in 15 minutes, to
53[degrees] with a windchill in the 40s, and brought gusts up to
42 mph. Unattended folding chairs skittered across the course
like tumbleweeds, and enough bunker sand was sent airborne that
it was like playing golf in the middle of The Grapes of Wrath.
Jack Nicklaus, competing in his 41st Masters, said, "These are
by far the toughest conditions I've seen here."

In these extreme elements Singh played his most heroic golf of
the tournament, hitting 12 of 14 greens (the round would be
curtailed due to darkness), and birdieing the treacherous 12th
hole, as well as three others, to move to seven under, three up
on Duval, who played credibly but for a wind-plagued double
bogey at 12. Singh credited his outstanding shotmaking to "good
solid strikes to the ball," a technique he perfected growing up
in Fiji, when during low tide he would hit balls on the flat,
firm sand of the beach, excellent practice for the tight lies of
Augusta's buzz-cut fairways.

When the third round resumed in the biting cold of Sunday
morning, both Duval and Singh parred in, setting the stage for
Sunday's dramatics. Duval gave valiant chase, but his hopes
ended at the 13th when he had only 197 yards to the pin but
caught a five-iron heavy and blocked it into the creek. "It was
just a bad golf shot, and it was the wrong time to do it," a
curt Duval said. "I really don't know what else to say." His
final-round 70 left him in a tie for third place. (Ernie Els,
with a strong 68 on Sunday, sneaked into second. Woods never
mounted a serious Sunday charge, shooting 69 to finish fifth.)

On the 25th anniversary of Lee Elder's shattering the race
barrier at the Masters, Singh became the second man of color to
win the tournament in the past four years. He, too, knows of
racial prejudice, but it came not in the Jim Crow South but
rather in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Singh is a Fijian of
Indian extraction, a descendant of Hindus and Muslims from the
subcontinent, subjected to the island's state-sanctioned
discrimination. (Indians, for example, cannot hold the office of
president or prime minister.) Singh is by far the biggest sports
star the country has produced, but he has returned to Fiji no
more than a handful of times since embarking on his professional
career two decades ago. This estrangement from his homeland has
helped cloud Singh's image. He has been miscast as a golfing
mercenary, with houses in Florida and London but no real home.

In Singh's mind his victory at the PGA two years ago went a long
way toward rehabbing his reputation. Perhaps with his joyous
Masters victory Singh will finally feel comfortable introducing
a kinder, gentler version of himself to the golfing public.
Loren Roberts, who tied Duval for third, said after Sunday's
finale, "He's a great champion, a deserving champion. I think a
lot of people misunderstand Vijay. He's not aloof, but genuine.
He doesn't give you a lot of b.s., which I like. Above all,
Vijay loves the game and respects the game, and that is evident
in his dedication to improving and in the way he conducts
himself."

It was well after 11 o'clock on Sunday night when Singh finally
left the Augusta National clubhouse, having indulged a series of
TV interviewers and autograph seekers. He was slowly making his
way to the players' parking lot, carrying his golf bag on his
left shoulder and holding his golf shoes in his right hand.
Singh's friends were waiting for him back at his hotel room to
continue the celebration, and he was looking forward to joining
them. These are the people who know him as an incorrigible
prankster, who indulge his love of James Bond movies and
of--brace yourself--Fleetwood Mac. These are the loved ones who
cluck when they recount how Singh dotes on his six German
shepherds. For the rest of us, this is the Singh we know: His
back is turned, and he is disappearing into the darkness.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER ENOUGH OF YOUR LIP Mark O'Meara tries to blast his way out of the bunker on the Masters' 18th hole, only to catch the edge on his way to a second-round score of 75 (page 32). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK STAYING THE COURSE Singh's round of 70 in the grueling elements on Saturday won new fans for a player not known for his gallery appeal. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK SPRING IS SPRUNG High winds produced grimaces and shudders in Round 3 as Duval (left) strained on the 11th hole and Steve Jones got sandblasted by a sudden gust. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN INTO THE WOODS Tiger's hopes of a Sunday charge were dashed when his tee shot ended up in the pine needles on 13.

All of Duval's maniacal training couldn't prepare him for the
challenges presented by Saturday's vexing weather.

In Thursday afternoon's breeze Woods blew his chance for victory
by hanging up a 75, his worst score of the year by two strokes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)