AUGUSTA, Georgia, AP
The young boy in Fiji had two choices. Situated between his house and the golf course was the Nandi airport, so the safe route was to walk five kilometers (three miles) around to the other side. Or, he could take his chances. With a golf bag slung over his shoulders, he sprinted across the runway between takeoffs and landings.
“Every hour there would be a flight or two,” Vijay Singh said. “You learned the busy times of the flights.” It might be the only time Singh could be accused of taking a short cut. His victory last year at Augusta National was the culmination of perhaps the most incredible journey by any Masters champion. He dropped out of high school in Fiji to pursue a career in golf, a sport hardly anyone played on the South Pacific island. Banned from two tours, he found exile in the rainforest of Borneo, where he made minimum wage plus US$10 for every lesson, and spent his free time pounding balls with no guarantees where it would lead. He was a bouncer in Scotland, one of several odd jobs that paid the bills to keep his unlikely journey on track. He won in Africa, established himself in Europe and proved himself in America, winning the PGA Championship in 1998 and then adding the Masters with a pressure-packed weekend in which he ignored an early charge by Tiger Woods, withstood a challenge from David Duval and held off Ernie Els at the end. “It’s not a matter of liking it,” Singh said of the road he took to become a Masters champion. “To get to where you want to be, you have to do that. You learn a lot about life that way.” Singh returns to Augusta National trying to become the first player since Nick Faldo in 1990 to successfully defend his title, and only the second back-to back winner since the Masters began in 1934. “I want to put the jacket on myself,” he said. Singh is No. 5 in the world rankings, and has finished fourth or better in his past six tournaments, two of them victories in Malaysia. He remains as tireless on the practice range as he was in Borneo, as dedicated as the time he first ran across the airport runway so he wouldn’t waste time getting to the golf course. Singh is reminded that he is the Masters champion when he is announced on the first tee, and when he opens his closet and see his green jacket on a hanger. “It kind of sticks out, the color,” he said with a laugh.
He could have given up golf when he was kicked off the Asian Tour in 1985 for allegations of doctoring a scorecard. In a recent interview with Golf Digest, Singh said the son of a prominent Indonesian was keeping his card and “for me to say the kid made a mistake, that he was wrong, well, you just didn’t do that.” “I still haven’t seen that scorecard,” he said. “If I changed a number, show me.” Instead, he took a job in Borneo where he and his wife, Ardena, lived in a one-room flat with an air conditioner that rarely worked when they really needed it, like every day. It was not beneath him to take any job that would pay the bills, even as a bouncer in Edinburgh. He worked from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., slept until 10 a.m. and then hit balls until it was time to go back to work. “I didn’t enjoy that because it was dangerous,” he said, although he never got into any serious scuffles. “I could take care of myself.” Every stop along the way, from Africa to Sweden to London, was another leg of the incredible journey. It does not end at the gates to Augusta National. Singh already is looking ahead to Southern Hills and Royal Lytham & St. Annes, sensing at age 38 that it is not too late for him to add a U.S. Open and British Open to complete the Grand Slam. “It’s not the easiest thing to achieve,” Singh said, words from a man who has had very few things in life that way.