Singh, Gamez grab 1st-round Kemper lead


POTOMAC -- In his third year on the PGA Tour, Vijay Singh is living up to his name. In Hindi, Vijay means "victory."

Of Indian ancestry and the only world class golfer ever produced by the Fiji Islands, Singh was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1993. But he was without a win last year, and his winnings were cut in half to $325,959, explainable at least in part by the back problems that plagued him from May on.

Victory is Vijay's more frequent companion this year. He won the Phoenix Open in January and the Buick Classic last month, and is No. 7 on the money list with $636,551, almost matching his 1993 total.

Yesterday, he fired a 6-under-par 65 in the first round to share the lead with Robert Gamez in the $1.4 million Kemper Open at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel.

Singh had birdies on the first three holes, another on the sixth hole, the fifth on the ninth and a final one on the 14th. Not one bogey marred his round.

"I was hitting solid and putting nicely," Singh said. "It seemed like every time I had a chance, I holed it. When you do that, you shoot some numbers."

Pleased as Gamez was with his round, he was not pleased that it took five agonizing hours to complete it in the 92-degree heat. He sounded off, wondering aloud why Tour officials don't take steps to speed up play.

"It was so slow, it was hard to get your rhythm," said Gamez, who tied for fifth, his best finish of the year, in last week's Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, and is No. 69 on the money list with $163,185.

"I don't know why pros, in threesomes, take five hours," he said. "It was hit and wait, hit and wait. The Tour doesn't do anything about it, even though they know who the slow players are.

"Some guys back away from every shot. They don't put their glove on or look at the yardage book until it's their turn. And this is the case every week, not just here."

Former University of Maryland coach Fred Funk echoed Gamez.

"It was really slow," Funk said. "We got to No. 14 and you could see four or five groups backed up on one hole."

A shot behind Singh and Gamez at 66 were Jeff Maggert, Mark O'Meara, Steve Lowery and Wayne Grady.

Singh teed off early, just after 8 a.m. with Payne Stewart and Lee Janzen. Throughout the first round, there was little wind, which might have accounted in part for all those birdies on the front nine.

"Then the wind came up, and it was different on the back nine," Singh said. "It played long coming in."

Singh, 32, learned the basics of the game from his father, an airplane technician on Fiji who also taught golf. Tom Weiskopf, now on the Senior Tour, was his golf role model. Weiskopf is the only three-time winner of the Kemper, in 1971, 1973 and 1977.

"He's about my height and I liked the way he played," said the 6-foot-2 Singh. "In a magazine, I think it was Golf Digest, they had sequence photos of his swing. That's when I picked him out as a role model. He had a beautiful golf swing, still does."

Singh left Fiji to pursue his dream of becoming a pro golfer. He tried the Australian Tour, then took a club job in Malaysia. In 1984, he won the Malaysian PGA Championship, the first of his 15 victories outside the United States.

Singh has been around. He joined the European Tour in 1989, capturing the Volvo Open in his rookie season, and has won events in Nigeria, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Spain, Germany, the Ivory Coast and Morocco. He led the Order of Merit of Safari Tour in Africa in 1988.

All of which explains his late start on the PGA Tour, at the age of 30.

Some players in the Kemper field readily admit they're here only for a tuneup for next week's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y. Singh is not among them.

"I'm not concerned about the majors," he said. "I'm not going to Shinnecock for just another tournament, but I don't want extra pressure on myself. This week, my focus is on the Kemper."

O'Meara plunged into his round somewhat disheartened about his experience Tuesday at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville. Despite 10 birdies and an eagle in 36 holes, he failed to qualify for the U.S. Open.

"I should have made it," O'Meara said. "But it's not the end of the world. Disappointed, yes, but maybe it's time to take a break."

Although he won the Honda Classic this year, O'Meara didn't meet any of the U.S. Open qualifying standards for exemption. Therefore, he had to try to qualify Tuesday, but finished two under while the players who did qualify were five under.

"You'd think if you won an event, you'd get in, but that's not the way it works," said O'Meara, who will not qualify for the U.S. Open even if he wins the Kemper. "I'm in the British Open. It seems funny to qualify for that and not our Open."

O'Meara, who started on the back nine, said he "jump started my round" with an eagle on the par-four 14th. He hit a 3-iron off the tee and "a perfect wedge for a two. From then on, I seemed to hit well."

He claims he is relaxed, and looking forward to a week without golf while many of his colleagues are at Shinnecock.

"I'll be in Bermuda or Key West, loving it," O'Meara said. "I'll spend some time with my family."

NOTE: With this year's Kemper field being touted as the best in its 15 years in Maryland, thousands of fans are expected to visit Avenel this weekend. That usually means increased bumper-to-bumper traffic on the usually busy and often-under-construction I-495 and I-270. Fortunately, there will be no construction on I-270 during Kemper week.


Where: TPC at Avenel, Potomac

When: Through Sunday

Course: 7,005 yards, par 71

Purse: $1.4 million; $252,000 to winner

TV: Chs. 13, 9, tomorrow, 4:30-6 p.m.; Sunday, 3-6 p.m.

Defending champion: Mark Brooks

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