Singh makes famous pursuers irrelevant


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Trying to win the Masters for the first time is tough enough. Vijay Singh did it yesterday with Tiger Woods, David Duval and Ernie Els chasing him all the way to the finish line.

If ever there was a group of challengers frightening enough to cause a leader to crumble in the final round at Augusta National, this was it. But Singh never gave his pursuers even the smallest opening.

He was three shots in front when the final round started and ended, and not once in between did anyone catch him. Not once did he succumb to any of the traditional Masters pressures that have swallowed so many.

Taking a lead into the treachery of Amen Corner on Sunday? Yawn. The possible catastrophes lying in wait throughout the back nine? Snore.

Singh's triumph is probably the closest we'll ever get to seeing a guy take a nap and win the Masters at the same time.

Talk about cool.

Behind him was Woods, Michael Jordan in spikes; Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion and probably golf's greatest talent other than Woods; and Duval, a brilliant, driven shot-maker obsessed with the Masters. Throw in veteran putting specialist Loren Roberts, and Singh had four for-real challengers, all playing well. They shot a combined 12-under in the final round yesterday.

But if Singh, 37, was the least bit concerned, he never showed it or admitted it later.

"They were making birdies, but so was I," said Singh, who learned to play golf as a child in Fiji. "I looked at the scoreboard, but I wasn't too worried about what they were doing. I figured that as long as I kept playing well, I was in good shape."

Singh, winner of one major title before yesterday -- the 1998 PGA Championship -- had never contended before in six tries at Augusta National, primarily because he isn't the best putter. Over the years he has tried doing it cross-handed, with long-handled jobs, you name it.

"I probably have a thousand putters at home," he said.

Make no mistake, he won yesterday because his putting was dramatically improved all week.

"That's all that had kept him from winning here before," Els said.

Still, an aspect of his victory that was just as important was his resolve, his refusal to succumb to the pressure and give his dangerous challengers any hope.

Three times on the front nine, Duval, his playing partner, sank a birdie putt to draw even with Singh at the top of the leader board. But all three times, Singh also sank a birdie putt and left the green with the lead.

Duval later claimed he was unaware that Singh had checkmated him three times within four holes. A likely story.

The only time Singh wobbled at all was on Amen Corner, when he put his approach shot into the water on No. 11 and drove his tee shot over the green and into an azalea bush on the par-3 No. 12. But he escaped with minimal damage. He chipped close enough to sink a bogey putt on No. 11, then got lucky on No. 12 when his ball bounced out of the azalea bush and into a sand trap.

A flawless sand player, he chipped out to within 3 feet and sank his par putt.

"Those are the kinds of breaks you need to win here," Duval said.

After Duval put an iron in the water on No. 13 and bogeyed, Singh was in total control.

"I hit a bad shot, probably the only bad shot I hit all week," Duval said. "Quite frankly, I played well enough to win. Just a few things didn't work out."

Up three strokes with five holes to go, all Singh had to do was avoid blowing it. He did.

"I don't think anyone should be surprised that Vijay Singh won the tournament," Duval said. "He's been there before and done it. He's a wonderful player, one of the best on the planet."

And he's from the other side of the planet, making him among the most unlikely champions the Masters has had. Singh grew up on a nine-hole course in a country with almost no golf culture and spent time as a teaching pro in Borneo, close to the end of the golfing Earth. A late bloomer, he played on minor-league tours all over the world before succeeding on the PGA Tour.

He had never heard of the Masters until he was a teen-ager, he said yesterday, and he had to watch it on tape in Fiji.

Maybe that's why he was so calm when it was his time to win the tournament yesterday. He didn't grow up listening to all the lore that accompanies the Masters, all the famous stories of triumph and failure that have intimidated so many. He's a technocrat, not a romantic, golf's version of a pitching coach.

Years of working on his swing until his hands were callused got him out of Fiji and into the limelight. That wasn't going to change yesterday.

"When I'm walking between shots, that's when I get most nervous," he said. "That's when I get butterflies. But when I'm standing over the ball, I'm comfortable. I'm more focused when I'm over the ball. It's kind of a funny feeling, that way."

Funny to him, maybe. Not funny at all to Duval, Woods and Els.

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