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Experience a good teacher


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2000

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- No surprise. Vijay Singh didn't crumble with nerves. With heroic calm, Fiji's phantom squashed a Duval-Els-Woods-Roberts challenge, becoming the star of golf's most captivating stage, the Sunday back nine at the Masters.

This is a poorer-than-mud South Pacific kid who, after stops both treacherous and controversial on four continents, found his paradise in America.

Fright? He's known some.

Years ago, as Singh used woods and irons to grind his way out of golfing exile and human despair, there were exams far more scary and drenched with consequence than combating David, Ernie, Tiger and Loren for a green jacket and golden acclaim.

Like in 1986, when he was working the scruffy, low-pay African Safari Tour. Singh hustled on the side. One afternoon, his wallet especially thin, Vijay came to the final hole against a British expatriate. Seven hundred dollars riding. In his pocket, just $10.

That's pressure.

Singh gasped at the thought of losing. He would be embarrassed. Perhaps worse. Snake pits are in the neighborhood. His wife would be livid. Judgment came to a par-5 finishing hole. Off the tee, Vijay's drive fluttered out of bounds.

He flinched, gritted some exceptional teeth and refused to lose. Singh, after re-teeing, crushed the shot. Next one was swatted onto the green. Vijay made the putt. Even with a two-shot penalty, he super-scrambled for par. Competition folded, making double bogey.

Seven hundred ... seemed like millions.

Vijay's shadowy, threadbare times are long gone. A unique, sweet-and-sour journey reached full grandeur at Augusta National. Masters conquest. That coat colored money green. Riches galore. Immortality.

Oh, the varying tale.

Singh's ancestors migrated to Fiji. Life there is difficult for natives of India. Vijay's dad, Mohan, with crusty dedication, worked up to airplane mechanic. Next door to the airport was a dusty, low-brow golf course. Where a son learned the game from his father.

At 19, Vijay left Fiji. He's been back just twice in 18 years since. His parents and most family members have relocated, primarily to Australia. Asked how Fijian reaction might be to Sunday's win, Singh said, "I hope they are celebrating."

Relations between Vijay and Fiji have been strained. Friends say he detests the island nation's historic treatment of Indians. Homegrowns there were riled by his controversies.

Sitiveni Rabuka, one-time prime minister of Fiji, was quoted last year as saying, "I know Vijay personally. That's why I can't say more nice things about him."

Hurt was widespread.

Singh first tried being a golf pro in Sydney and Melbourne. He borrowed considerable money from locals. Vijay would be barred from the Australian tour, charged with not paying debts.

Trouble followed him.

Next stop was the Asian tour. Singh began to make a living. He won the Malaysian Open in 1984. A year later, a scorekeeper accused Vijay of cheating at the Indonesian Open. He denied it, but the tour banned him. Singh's reputation swam in a golfing sewer. His exile was excruciating. Vijay went to Borneo, which is just south of hell. Life there can be heat-scorched and insect-infested. His job as assistant pro paid the equivalent of $160 a month (he made $828,000 for bossing the Masters.) He practiced on the Borneo grit of a sawdust range.

Augusta worlds away.

After two years, Singh bummed his way to Africa and that Safari gig. His breakthrough came in 1988. Vijay qualified for the European tour. For five years, before taking an even bigger golfing leap to the U.S. tour, the Euro money was good. Singh, who married a woman from Malaysia, kept moving further from Fijian roots. He defiantly avoided questions about Australia and Indonesia.

Vijay's victories soon took on a Rand McNally flair. He won tournaments in Nigeria, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Morocco, Italy and the Ivory Coast. He and wife Ardena settled in London. In 1990, they had a son, Qass.

Masters champions have come from Spain, Germany, England, Scotland, South Africa, Wales and the United States, but none has traveled a path so unique and spicy as Sunday's hero.

Singh became a PGA Tour regular in 1993. Career earnings surpass $10-million with this win. Two years ago, Vijay won the PGA Championship, his first major. Now the Masters.

Ask anybody to describe Singh and they'll say (1) he practices longer and harder than all rivals and (2) it's risky to ask him about anything that happened before 1988.

Vijay and Ardena maintain their English home but spend a majority of the year in a big house on the Atlantic Ocean, in the northeast Florida village of Ponte Vedra Beach, not far from Jacksonville.

Singh's warmth with Qass is constantly apparent. Almost 10, the son was alongside green-jacket Vijay in the triumphant Masters aftermath. Singh's relationship with media has never been cuddly. There are always those questions. Probing into his bruised past.

Global soap opera, this Vijay Singh.

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