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Even Money With one mission already accomplished, no-nonsense Vijay Singh could be about to land another blow to Tiger by ending his reign as player of the year

Nov. 17, 2003
Nov. 17, 2003

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Nov. 17, 2003

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Even Money With one mission already accomplished, no-nonsense Vijay Singh could be about to land another blow to Tiger by ending his reign as player of the year

Fans, lose those rusty go Annika! buttons. Writers and talking
heads, put aside your bruised egos. Upon closer inspection,
you'll see that Vijay Singh and a certain standoffish golfing
icon from an earlier era have a lot in common. Both players were
self-taught loners who overcame adversity and found success
through obsessive practice. Neither won his first major
championship until his mid-30s. And Singh, like his predecessor,
hasn't the slightest interest in being best buddies with the guys
he's competing against.

This is an article from the Nov. 17, 2003 issue

Singh will never be an exact replica of Ben Hogan--or come close
to matching the Wee Ice Mon's records--but in the 21st century,
when everything has been downsized, Singh may come as close as
anyone ever will. Swing coach Butch Harmon, who grew up watching
Hogan, sees the similarities. "Vijay, like Hogan, has to hit a
lot of balls for his timing to be right," says Harmon, whose
father, Claude, was one of Hogan's few close friends. "That said,
he has an excellent swing. It's very repeatable, and that's the
secret to golf. He beats so many balls, like Hogan, so that his
swing will hold up under pressure."

As for Singh's relationship with the other players, as well as
with the media, Harmon shakes his head and says, "The difference
is that Hogan was very much an introvert, and Vijay isn't."

Nevertheless, Singh's contrarian value was never more obvious
than at last week's season-ending Tour Championship, a $6 million
outing that usually has all the buzz of a Los Angeles Clippers
game. Thanks to Singh, this Tour Championship, at Champions Golf
Club in Houston, was not simply another crowning moment for Tiger
Woods, the way so many of them have been in recent years. While
it might seem demoralizing that career-best seasons by Singh, Jim
Furyk, Davis Love III and Mike Weir were, in the eyes of many,
still not as good as Woods's worst year since 1998, at least they
were good enough to create a toss-up for the player of the year
award, which Woods had won handily four times in a row.

More important, Singh came to Houston in a position to do
something that no one has done in five years--wrest an important
title from Woods. A hot streak of two wins and eight other top 10
finishes in his last 11 starts lifted Singh to No. 1 on the money
list, a spot Woods had occupied for the last four years, tying a
record. Woods trailed Singh by $768,000 and change, and if Woods
was to win a fifth straight title, he had to win the Tour
Championship while Singh finished no better than fourth.

Woods and Singh never really contended, especially after Chad
Campbell separated himself from the 30 other players in the field
with a 10-under-par 61 in the third round en route to his first
Tour victory. But Sunday was nonetheless Vijay Day as Singh, who
tied for fifth while Woods limped home in 26th, claimed the money
title. "It's probably the biggest accomplishment in my career,
especially at my age," said the 40-year-old Singh. "Hopefully
I'll get voted player of the year, but if I don't, I've done what
I wanted to do."

Woods, who played in nine fewer tournaments than Singh, still
figures to be the favorite in the player of the year balloting by
Tour pros. Woods has five wins to Singh's four and a whopping
half-stroke edge in scoring average. Woods said on Sunday that
he'd be surprised if he doesn't win the award "considering [my]
two World Golf Championships and my stroke average being the
second lowest of all time."

Still, the race is too close to call. Ernie Els says he's leaning
toward Singh, who passed him while rising from eighth to second
in the World Ranking this year. Charles Howell, the runner-up to
Campbell by three shots, sees a split vote. "I hope we vote
strictly off what Vijay did on the golf course," he says. "This
isn't a contest for Mr. Congeniality."

Regardless of the outcome, which will be announced next month,
Singh was the best thing to happen to the Tour in 2003.
Everything he has accomplished energized the Tour in a way that
Cinderella winners like Ben Curtis (British Open) and Shaun
Micheel (PGA Championship) could not. (Neither Curtis nor Micheel
even qualified for the Tour Championship.) Thanks to a mean
streak that players such as Els, Love and Phil Mickelson simply
don't possess, Singh has cemented his status as Tiger's toughest
rival. Singh might not putt well enough to sustain a challenge to
Woods, but he certainly has the 'tude.

There was precious little chatter between the two players last
Thursday at Champions. (They were usually 30 yards apart while
walking the fairways.) Woods played his best round of the
tournament on Thursday, shooting a one-under 70, but when he was
asked how his Friday pairing with Els differed from playing with
Singh, he smiled and said pointedly, "It's always nice to play
with a friend."

The Tiger-Vijay dustup began when Paul Tesori, who was then
Singh's caddie, wore a cap with tiger who? stitched on the back
when the two players squared off in singles at the 2000
Presidents Cup. Woods, who hadn't seemed all that excited by the
Presidents Cup up to that point, put on his stoniest game face
for the match, during which few putts were conceded, and he beat
an equally grim Singh 2 and 1. "A lot of the ill will stems from
that," says Harmon, who was working for Woods at the time. "Vijay
doesn't go out of his way to be friendly, I think by design."

Singh has a history of public relations problems, but he became
an easy target when he dissed Annika Sorenstam for playing in the
Colonial. "A handful of reporters have misunderstood him," says
Nick Price, one of Singh's friends on Tour. "The Annika thing was
a perfect example. What Vijay said was, 'If I miss the cut at
Colonial, I hope she misses the cut.' Everyone left off the first
part."

Singh has been dodging the media ever since the Colonial, but
that seems to have made him only more mysterious and a
sympathetic figure to many. And he has not exactly shut out the
press. He simply makes reporters work a little harder. At the
Tour Championship, for example, Singh, the defending champion,
didn't hold the traditional pretournament press conference, but
he stopped to answer questions after every round. On Friday he
even did stand-up interviews with three TV networks.

Ted Forstmann, the senior founding partner of Forstmann, Little &
Co., a private investment firm that has an endorsement deal with
Singh, has been Singh's partner in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am a
dozen times. "It's crazy how the media have him 180 degrees
wrong," Forstmann says. "I know the media. I've bought 27
companies in my life, and 26 times I've read in the paper how
stupid I was and how I was overpaying. One time I read that I was
making a smart move, and that was the one deal that failed. You
don't have to be a media star to be a good person, and Vijay is a
good person. He's a proud man in the best sense of the word."

The Singhs stayed at Forstmann's house in the Hamptons during the
1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. When Forstmann returned home
for lunch one day, he was surprised to see Singh's car still in
the driveway, considering that his starting time wasn't that far
off. Forstmann hurried through the house and found Vijay on the
tennis court, lobbing balls to his then five-year-old son, Qass.
Says Forstmann, "I said, 'Vijay, you've got to get going.' He
said, 'Yeah, I know.' He simply felt that time with his son was
important."

In one of their Pebble Beach appearances, Forstmann says, Singh
was in contention when he discovered on one green that his ball
had rolled into a small depression about 12 inches from the cup.
"I told Vijay, 'You'd better fix that spot before you putt,'"
says Forstmann. "He said, 'I can't. It's not a ball mark.' So he
marked his ball, cleaned it, put it right back in that depression
and missed the tap-in. He looked at me and said, 'That's golf.'"

Singh made a few new fans at Champions. When his 20-foot putt for
birdie stopped on the lip at the 15th hole last Saturday, Singh
paused, then jumped up and down as if that would make the ball
topple in. The fans laughed, and Singh flashed a big smile. On
Thursday, after struggling with his putting during a desultory
73, he practiced until it got dark. As he headed toward the
locker room in the fading light, two dozen fans still lined the
walkway by the clubhouse. Singh graciously accommodated all of
their autograph requests, including one from a tipsy woman who
asked him to sign the back of her denim jacket. Singh obligingly
wrote his name in big, bold strokes. The woman wobbled back to a
friend, who eyed Singh's handiwork and said, "We may have to
frame this."

If Singh was trying to make a statement, it wasn't the first time
this year he had successfully pulled it off.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP TIGER TOPPER Singh stopped Woods's record run of money titles with more than $900,000 to spare.COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH THE BIG CHILL Paired in the first round, player-of-the-year front-runners Woods (left) and Singh barely spoke to each other.COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH CROWDED OUT Woods slipped to 26th in the 31-man field and by Sunday was reduced to making a case for himself for POY.

"It's crazy how the media have [Singh] 180 degrees wrong," says
Forstmann. "He's a proud man in the best sense of the word."