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Golf

Singh's iciness fails to hide fire

By HUBERT MIZELL
Published November 3, 2003

PALM HARBOR - Golfers signed final-round scorecards, about to hustle away from the Chrysler Championship. Dozens of Sunday witnesses leaned across waist-high barriers, shouting for Vijay Singh's attention.

He hadn't won, but Singh didn't frown. Finishing second paid $518,400. Vijay stopped, whipped out a Sharpie and began autographing programs, caps, shirts and photos.

Citizens appeared giddy, as people are prone to be upon brushing against celebrities. No exchange of conversation, just ink. But the bond seemed real. It well could've been Davis Love, Ernie Els or even Tiger Woods.

Vijay is a fascinating study. His cranky differences seem mostly with media, to whom the intriguing man from Fiji offers a shortage of warmth, cooperation and patience.

I was trying to watch him Sunday without preconceptions. "I can't understand why anybody has big problems with Vijay," said Dave Renwick, in his second stretch as Singh's caddie that began in June at the U.S. Open. "He's a decent guy. Works real hard. Cares so much about his family and golf."

Unquestionably, there is a scent of paranoia in Vijay. That's not media blabber, it is well-documented. Few from Singh's sphere would debate that he has an attitude of reluctance.

Tiger is a natural.

Vijay an unnatural.

Singh is suspicious of anyone who nudges into his life. It's okay when people are restrained by fences or controlled by green-shirted security. Maybe it's because of where Vijay comes from, or where he's been. He views outside voices and factors as reasons for mistrust until proven otherwise.

Vijay gets along smoothly with most PGA Tour regulars. "He can be a hoot," Duffy Waldorf said. Most say they see a sharp sense of Fijian humor, but he shares not with those not invited to Vijay Land.

Latest evidence of his firmer-than-ever grip on a profession so challenging was the Chrysler Championship, a tournament whose stature keeps escalating among prime golfers. Singh hit solid, contending shots as usual, fattening his No. 1 ranking in PGA Tour money, being outscored only by Retief Goosen.

"Tough but fair," Singh said. What more can a top-echelon golfer ask of a course? Els, winner of two U.S. Opens and a British Open, finished a mediocre 34th (tie) but called the Innisbrook track "the best we (the PGA Tour) have ever played in Florida."

That includes Sawgrass, home to the Players Championship, so Ernie's comments may not bring cheers at PGA Tour headquarters, located on the same north Florida property at Ponte Vedra.

Els did have one Sunday complaint: no beer in the players' locker room. Somebody went on a 30-minute search to come up with a few iced Heinekens. Ernie departed, saying, "See you next year."

Compliments came from many precincts of the golfing universe. Thomas Levet, the Frenchmen with the icy-blue eyes who lost to Els in 2002 British Open playoff, said Copperhead "is the best course I played anywhere this year, along with the one in Canada (Hamilton Golf Club)." He tied for sixth place.

Back to Vijay. After many minutes, he left the gallery of signature-seekers. People applauded. I always wonder, what's really going on behind those dark eyes?

As much as anybody who ever played golf at optimum levels, Singh is an outsider. He has no real constituency, except for wife Ardena and 13-year-old son Qass. I've never met a Fijian journalist, so who knows how he is perceived by home media? Are there ever Fijians in Vijay's galleries?

He's different. We're more used to PGA Tour blond blokes from Oklahoma State, UCLA or Wake Forest. Or steel-ribbed Americans from the heartland, like Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer. I don't even know the colors on Fiji's flag. Never heard Vijay's national anthem.

What we do know is that Singh, at 40, is the world's second-best golfer next to Woods. This week, as the Tour Championship begins in Houston, they will be paired shoulder-to-shoulder, game-on-game. We'll learn more. "I look forward to it," Singh said.

Observing those grinning, bellowing spectators, it was clear they had found no reasons to dislike a talent that has won in the United States, Sweden, Taiwan, Ivory Coast, Singapore, Spain, Germany, France, Nigeria, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Goosen's native South Africa.

In our country, we admire hard workers and, in golf, Singh is the stevedore, the brick mason. He plays or practices the game 300 days a year. Driving-range stints run 31/2 hours with Vijay smacking a ball every 30 seconds. Beyond that, enhanced physical training has firmed the Fijian's middle, powered his shoulders and enriched his endurance.

Critics suggest Vijay has no life beyond golf and hanging around his Ponte Vedra house. To which the outsider said, "It worked well for Ben Hogan, so why not for me?"

[Last modified November 3, 2003, 07:03:53]


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