Straits To the Top

With a dogged playoff win in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Vijay Singh removed any doubt that he is the world's best player
August 22, 2004

Never give a great player a second life. It's an axiom as old as golf, and Vijay Singh demonstrated its truth at the PGA Championship, with more than a little help from Justin Leonard. ¶ On Sunday at windblown Whistling Straits, a wondrous piece of sculpted earth some 60 miles south of Green Bay, Singh pulled off an overtime comeback so improbable it would have made Brett Favre blush, and in doing so affirmed that he is golf's dominant player. Leading his playing partner, Leonard, by a stroke at the start of the day, Singh hit the ball all over Wisconsin and putted with the delicacy of a linebacker, failing to make a single birdie on his way to a 76. This stunning collapse would have gone down as a career nadir were it not for Leonard's agonizing inability to close out Singh.

For most of his career the tough little Texan has been known as one of golf's great clutch putters, thanks in part to the epic 45-footer that all but wrapped up the 1999 Ryder Cup. But Leonard, 32, is no longer that same fearless kid who won in the British Open in 1997 and seemed destined to be the Trevino to Tiger Woods's Nicklaus--an imaginative shotmaker who would routinely steal majors from his more overpowering rival. Coming into this PGA, Leonard was suffering through the worst year of his career, and his confidence was so low that last month he called a sports psychologist, Gio Valenti, looking for answers. Appealing to his new client's analytical bent two weeks ago at the International, Valenti gave Leonard a PowerPoint presentation that included an explanation of the physiological effects of pressure, such as how the release of the hormone norepinephrine can restrict capillaries in the hands, tightening grip pressure.

Thus loosened up, Leonard played his most inspired golf in years at Whistling Straits, but as he admitted on the eve of the final round, "I haven't been on a stage this big in a long time." On Sunday he struck the ball admirably but couldn't control his capillaries on the greens, especially down the stretch. On the 15th hole Leonard failed to convert a 12-foot birdie putt that would have put him three up with three to go. On the 16th he missed a five-footer for par, allowing a steadying Singh to inch within one stroke. Leonard was still one up on the 72nd hole and had a 10foot par putt for the championship, but he played too much break, giving Singh and Chris DiMarco, who was in the clubhouse at eight under, new life in the form of a three-hole playoff.

"He should have put my man away when he had the chance," Singh's caddie, Dave Renwick, would say afterward.

DiMarco was an accidental tourist in Sunday's drama. A gritty player who had started the day at seven-under, five strokes behind Singh, DiMarco was primarily concerned with finishing in the top eight, which would clinch his spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. (The PGA was the final tournament for qualifying.) DiMarco shot up the leader board with a burst of three birdies in four holes midway through his round, but he didn't realize he had a chance to win the tournament until he parred the 71st hole. He would have been better off not knowing. Admittedly nervous, he left a 15-foot birdie putt a few inches short on 18.

The playoff was defined by two fearless swings, both by Singh. He is a fan of Zen Golf,an instructional book by Joseph Parent, and during the playoff, for the first time all day, his mind was "clear," Singh would say afterward. "I saw the shots so well, and I hit the shots I wanted to hit." While Leonard and DiMarco played conservatively on the first playoff hole, the 361-yard par-4 10th, using fairway metals off the tee, Singh ripped a driver to just short of the green, and with a deft chip he nabbed his first birdie of the day and a key one-stroke advantage over his competitors.

On the next hole, the devilish 236-yard par-3 17th, whose green is perched on the edge of Lake Michigan, Singh rifled an instantly classic three-iron through the breeze to within six feet. Renwick, who has now been on the bag during five major wins by three players, called it "one of the greatest shots in major championship history. Of course, it would have been better if he made the putt." Still, even after failing to cash in with a birdie, Singh was one up going to the final hole, the 500-yard par-4 18th, where only six birdies had been made all day. With a bloodless fairway-and-green par he snuffed out Leonard and DiMarco.

Asked afterward if it was his ugliest win ever, Singh said, "It's the prettiest one, I think. I just hung in there. I never gave up.... I think this is the biggest accomplishment I've ever had in my career."

That would include 22 international victories and now 20 on the PGA Tour, notably the 1998 PGA and the 2000 Masters. What makes this PGA triumph so momentous is that it has finally clarified golf's new world order. The computers still rank Woods No. 1. But right now--particularly in the wake of a typically erratic two-under finish at the Straits, good for 24th place--Tiger, who has now gone 10 majors without a win, is only the fourth-best player in the game. Throughout this summer there has been a lively debate about how Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson should be ranked in the first three places on that list. But the top spot is no longer in dispute. At Whistling Straits, Els, who finished a shot back at seven under, achieved the Grand Slammed, having contended at all four major championships and then failed to win any of them. A stroke back of Els, Mickelson fell short in the third straight major following his Masters breakthrough. Meanwhile, Singh's fifth victory of the year (no one else has more than two) all but assures him of his first player of the year award. The $1.125 million winner's check gave him a 2004 total of $6,938,566 and a $1.3 million lead over second-place Mickelson in the money race, which Singh won last year for the first time, ending Woods's four-year reign.

What's astonishing about Singh's run is that at age 41 he is only getting better, and hungrier. "He has the kind of desire, discipline and commitment that very few athletes have," says personal trainer Joey Diovisalvi, who works with the 6'2", 198-pound Singh for an hour and a half six days a week, whether on the road or at the 3,000-square-foot gym Singh just built at his home in Ponte Vedre Beach, Fla. "We recently started a more intense program, because he wants to go to another level. He wants to raise the bar to a height only he can reach."

Solidifying his standing as the game's most dominant player was all the sweeter for Singh because he was paired with Woods for the opening two rounds of the PGA. Singh described the vibe as "intense," and that was a polite way of putting it. When Woods began reinventing the sport in his image with a monster season in 1999, Singh was alone among the top players in openly welcoming the challenge. It was in February 2000 that he began reshaping his body, long before Els or Mickelson would make such a commitment. And Singh's Masters win that year ultimately denied Woods the Grand Slam. The cold war between Singh and Woods turned hot at the end of 2000, during a Presidents Cup singles match in which Singh was peeved when Tiger failed to concede a series of short putts.

As Singh has caught up to and then passed Woods, their relations have grown more strained. Before their tee time together for the final round of last year's American Express Championship, the following was the entirety of their conversation:

Woods: "Good luck."

Singh: "Titleist 2."

It is this prickliness that has made it hard for Singh to connect with fans and reporters, but he is revered by a large, fiercely loyal group of Tour players. Singh has long been the pro's pro, an oracle of swing advice and encouragement. Woods and Els and Mickelson are fixated on results. Singh is obsessed with the process, and he is most at home on the range, where he puts in an extraordinary number of hours.

Last Thursday, following the first round, Singh held court on the driving range, demonstrating a drill for an eclectic cluster of players that included Brad Faxon, Shigeki Maruyama and Bo Van Pelt. Singh had stuck a shaft in the ground at a precise angle, forcing him to swing along a certain plane. A bottle of water was placed just ahead and to the right of his ball, forcing an outside-in action to protect against a hook, the shot that most often gets him in trouble. While he swung, a glove was wedged between Singh's right arm and chest, keeping his swing compact and tight. Even with all these restrictions he pounded drives to the horizon.

Maruyama tried to hit a couple of balls with Singh's setup, but after a few screaming hooks he gave up, giggling madly. Faxon had more success and was so jazzed by the results that he said, "I'm going to go out and find a shaft and stick it in the ground as soon as I can." Later Faxon said, "To me Vijay's got the best swing in golf--so balanced, so athletic, so powerful, so effortless. I don't even know the right adjective. Awesome doesn't do it justice."

Like the champion it produced, Whistling Straits had onlookers groping for superlatives. Singh's victory elevated, and validated, one of the most talked-about venues in recent years. The Straits opened in 1998, and it was a leap of faith for the PGA to visit so soon. The tournament usually has the scent of old money, as august private clubs like Winged Foot and Medinah and Oak Hill have hosted in recent years. But this year the tournament smelled of the singed bratwursts that were served at the concession stands.

The visionary who imagined championship golf in this setting is Herb Kohler, the billionaire who runs the eponymous plumbing fixture empire. He owned a flat tract of land on the edge of Lake Michigan but wanted a course reminiscent of the wild and woolly links of Ireland. Enter Pete Dye, the mad scientist of course architecture, who imported 13,126 truckloads of sand and sculpted among the man-made dunes what Tour pro Stuart Appleby has dubbed "the eighth wonder of the world."

On the final day, Whistling Straits played at 7,536 yards, longest ever for a major championship, and was defined by 1,400 beautifully shaggy bunkers; sinister, serpentine fairways; and greens perched on the edge of oblivion. It is perhaps the most visually intimidating course in the world, and for many players it was not love at first sight during the cold, windy practice rounds. "I was told before I got here that there were 10 really difficult holes and eight impossible holes," Lee Westwood said on the eve of the tournament. "I'm just trying to work out which are the 10 difficult holes."

All the players' harrumphing had an effect on the course setup, because the PGA brass was deathly afraid of getting Shinnecocked, a word that has entered the lexicon in the wake of the debacle at this year's U.S. Open, where over-the-top course conditions led to embarrassing scores and red-faced tournament officials. On Thursday the tees were moved up by about 50 yards on three of the toughest holes (8, 11 and 18), and all of the exacting par3s were given accessible pin placements on the front of the greens. On this neutered golf course 39 players broke par, led by Darren Clarke's 65. Leonard fired a 66, one better than Singh.

Beginning on Friday the tees were moved back and the flags tucked, but in relatively calm conditions the scores continued to plunge during the second and third rounds. When the sun came out on Sunday and the wind blew hard, turning the greens firm and fast, the Straits finally showed its teeth. In the final 15 twosomes no one broke 70, but there was no grumbling afterward. Leonard said the course was "fantastic," while Singh was among the many players calling for future major championships at the Straits. That could happen as early as the 2012 U.S. Open.

By then Singh will be nearing 50 and almost surely enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It has been a remarkable journey for the native of Fiji, who honed his game as a club pro in Borneo and then on various tours across Africa, Asia and Europe. When Singh arrived in America to play a full schedule, in 1993, he was hoping only to make a decent living, but he has done so much more than that. As Leonard learned on Sunday, Singh is not one to waste a golden opportunity.

Gary Van Sickle's Underground Golfer, Frank Beard's Mailbag and Inside Golf by Chris Lewis, each week at si.com/golf.

During the playoff, Singh would say afterward, "I saw the shots so well, and I HIT THE SHOTS I WANTED TO HIT."

Revered by a fiercely loyal group of Tour players, Singh has long been THE PRO'S PRO, AN ORACLE OF SWING ADVICE.

COLOR PHOTO DAVID BERGMAN VIJAY DAY After hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time, a satisfied Singh flashed a rare smile for the assembled media. COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECK (BACKGROUND ALTERED BY SI IMAGING)[See also caption above] COLOR PHOTODAVID WALBERG HANGING INLeonard's chip to seven feet on the second playoff hole kept the pressure on front-runner Singh. COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECK LOGJAM The issue was still unresolved after 72 holes, but a firmer stroke by DiMarco at 18 might have prevented a playoff. COLOR PHOTODAVID WALBERG

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)