2004: Straits shot
The shot fired off his 3-iron like a bullet, boring through the crisp, late summer Wisconsin air, traveling over the tall grassy hillock that juts out in front of the green. It was the perilous, 236-yard 17th hole at the man-made moonscape known as Whistling Straits Golf Club. Drawing ever so slightly, the shot pitched onto the green, the ball feeding slowly toward the pin tucked devilishly in the back left corner of a putting surface that sits high above shimmering Lake Michigan.
When it came to rest 5 feet from the cup, the ball should have taken a bow.
A “good shot” is what its originator, Vijay Singh, would later term it with a shrug of his broad shoulders. No big deal. When you hit a thousand or so practice rocks per day, maybe the shots start to run together, even if you’re standing on the second hole of a three-hole playoff with a brittle one-stroke lead at the 86th PGA Championship.
Good shot? How about one of the best pressure shots in major championship history, struck with a playoff on the line and a chance to hold the Wanamaker Trophy he last grasped six years ago? How about ‘great shot,’ perhaps right there in long-iron lore with Hogan’s 1-iron at Merion at the U.S. Open in 1950 and Nicklaus’ 1-iron in the mist that skipped off the flagstick at the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach’s 17th hole.
Too bad people may not remember it. He missed the putt for birdie, after all, and chances are it wasn’t the talk around the office water cooler Monday morning, even after Singh prevailed over Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco in the playoff, touring Nos. 10-17-18 in 1 under. (The three players were knotted through 72 holes at 8-under 280.)
A steely figure who reveals little of himself to the media, Singh isn’t likely to be seen yukking it up on the late-night couch next to Jay Leno or David Letterman this week, and besides, there was other, juicier fodder at the Straits. There was Leonard’s late-round collapse and DiMarco’s final-day charge; the short putt a great putter, Chris Riley, missed to keep him from the playoff; Ernie Els’ failure to capitalize on another grand Sunday opening; and Phil Mickelson making yet another major run.
Vijay Singh? Oh, yeah, they’ll sigh, that guy. He won again, huh?
Get used to it. At 41, Singh, the insular, solitary man from Fiji, finally has the brimming inner swagger and confidence to match his supreme talents and unparalleled work ethic. Though he had blistered the golf universe everywhere from Pebble Beach to Disney World these last 18 months, winning eight times, his dominant play had not carried over to golf’s major championships. Until last weekend, that is, when Leonard’s suddenly stubborn putter led to three back-nine bogeys and allowed Singh back in the championship. Given a fresh start in the playoff after shooting 76 – the highest 18-hole round ever recorded by a PGA champ – Singh then made his only birdie putt of the day, a 6-footer on the 19th hole.
“I think this is the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever had in my whole career,” said Singh, who added to two previous major titles: the 1998 PGA at Sahalee and the 2000 Masters. “This makes my year right here. I played well at the Masters and did not win. I played well the first two days of the U.S. Open, played well at the British. I wanted to win one again, one major again, and it came at the right time.”
Singh’s strong finish capped a wild curtain call at Whistling Straits, the 6-year-old linksy illusion on a former toxic waste site. The Straits took a few days before finally showing its muscle to golf’s deepest field of the year (95 of the top 100 from the World Ranking were here). Thursday, when the wind laid down and three tees were moved way up, the notion Whistling Straits would be one of the most penal major tests ever quickly was squashed. K.J. Choi birdied his first five holes and Darren Clarke shot a blistering 7-under 65 in what was the PGA of America’s cautious response to the Sunday brutality players had encountered at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock two months earlier.
Whimpering Straits was more like it.
“I just think they’re being extra conservative,” said Brad Faxon after the first round. “I can guarantee you that we’ll play a course on Sunday that is nowhere near this.”
He was right. By Sunday the winds at Whistling whistled, the greens dried out and scores shot up as the course made an impassioned statement to lure future majors, quite possibly the 2012 U.S. Open. The scoring average in the final 10 groups was 74.85, with DiMarco (71) the only player in that bunch able to beat par. He’d have loved to have shot one lower, but a 16-footer for birdie at the 72nd hole tracked toward the hole and screeched to a halt 6 inches short.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” said DiMarco, who posted his third top 10 in four 2004 majors. “My tendency when I’m nervous is to come up just a hair short on it. I hit it dead center.”
DiMarco’s consolation prize is a spot on the Ryder Cup team, a goal since he played in the Presidents Cup in South Africa last November. “I’m proud of myself that I went out and did it, got it done,” he said.
For Chris Riley and Ernie Els, it was more a case of what might have been. Each stepped to the tee at the 500-yard 18th at 8 under and made three-putt bogeys from long distance to squander his respective chance at joining the playoff. Riley (73–281) was reduced to tears, though he made his way onto the Ryder Cup team with his tie for fourth. An interesting dilemma, considering Riley’s wife, Michelle, is due with the couple’s first child Sept. 17, the first day of next month’s matches. Els (73–281) left without speaking to reporters for the second time in three major starts. Whistling Straits marked the fourth consecutive major he was in Sunday contention, and the Big Easy walked away the Big Empty.
“We practice for this, and I live for this kind of moment now in my career,” Els said earlier in the week. “I’m still waiting for that reward this year.”
Now he must wait until 2005. Els was edged at the finish line at the Masters, shot 80 in the final round at Shinnecock, lost the British Open in a playoff and could have made the PGA playoff with a final-round 72. In South Africa, it’s sure to be a long summer. Mickelson, too, could have made the playoff with a 72, but finished two shots above the mark, his highest round at a major this year. His tie for sixth prevented Mickelson (282) from becoming the first player to post top-3 finishes at all four professional majors in one calendar year.
“I feel like I almost had a chance, which is really frustrating,” said Mickelson.
The tournament was Leonard’s to win coming down the stretch, and to his dismay, it slipped away as he closed with 75. After a brilliant 3-iron from 218 yards at the 518-yard, par-4 15th hole (the most difficult hole on the course) set up a 6-foot birdie putt, Leonard failed to convert, missing an opportunity to stretch his advantage to three shots with three to play. And his 5-foot miss for par at the next hole gave Singh, who was one back, a glimmer of hope. At No. 18, with DiMarco already in the scorer’s area hoping to play more holes, Leonard hit a 5-iron from 204 yards he thought was just right. “When I hit the shot, I thought I just ended the golf tournament,” he said.
But the approach finished a yard short of carrying to the green, and nestled next to a bunker in a grassy depression. He bumped a chip to 10 feet, then watched the potential winning putt slide past the right edge of the hole. For Leonard, who started the final round one behind Singh but owned the Sunday lead for 14 holes, it was a tough loss to swallow. Two years ago at the PGA at Hazeltine, Leonard also led in the final round but shot 77.
“I’ve gained a lot of perspective since Hazeltine,” he had said after the third round, “and what I do tomorrow is not going to define the player that I am, the person that I am to myself, and it really shouldn’t for anybody else.”
In assessing the shortcomings of his back-nine 39 Sunday, Leonard said, “I missed about four putts inside of 10 feet on the back nine. It’s pretty hard to win a golf tournament, much less a major, when you do something like that.”
A short time later, before collecting his belongings, he couldn’t disguise his pain. Being a first-time father has given Leonard new perspective, but after one of the toughest losses he has endured, perspective could wait until morning. “It stings,” he said candidly, “and it’s disappointing.”
Singh, who has won two consecutive events since abandoning the belly putter for a conventional model, had his share of Sunday putting woes, too. But he never gave up, even when the situation appeared bleakest. It’s simply not his style. Perhaps the reason he has won two PGAs at first-time venues is that nobody prepares harder and puts forth more sweat than Singh, who has been shooed off many a practice tee as darkness fell. After neither Leonard nor DiMarco gave himself a quality birdie opportunity from the fairway at the 75th hole – Leonard’s second shot pulled up short, in the fringe, and DiMarco pulled his approach into a bunker – Singh sealed the deal from 45 feet with a perfect lag to 2 feet for par.
If it’s true that one gets out of something what he puts in, well, there probably isn’t a trophy case big enough to house Singh’s just rewards. His well-chronicled journey from nowhere to world-class player began in the unlikeliest of places, in Borneo, in the South Pacific, where he spent the better part of two years as a teaching pro and considered himself rich when $10 lined his pocket. Singh, who grew up sleeping six to a room and worked odd jobs to make ends meet between his golf paychecks, paved the way for victories at the PGA and Masters by winning at such stops as the El Bosque Open. Every time he contemplated quitting, he found no better life to pursue.
Return to Fiji? And do what?
Back in Borneo, Singh used to beat balls until he ran out of daylight, hoping brighter days were ahead. Now he’s found them. Before long, he’ll likely overtake Tiger Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking (he’s also No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index). Despite becoming a millionaire many times over, his work ethic through the years appears to have grown stronger, if that’s conceivable. Many days, he rises at 4:30 a.m. for the first of two daily workouts.
“People pretty much only see what Vijay does on the golf course, and on the driving range,” said his trainer and friend, Joey Diovisalvi. “He’s known for that. But off the golf course, he has dedicated his life to play at a level we haven’t quite figured out yet. I think Vijay’s work ethic is going to, one of these days, be recognized as the hardest we’ve seen. He’ll be somebody who, I believe, in golf history they’ll talk about. Vijay reminds me of a racehorse who is never, ever giving anything but 110 percent.”
Though viewed as aloof and cool to many, those who really know Singh say he can be warm and genuine. Says his longtime caddie, Dave Renwick, “He’ll go out and have a laugh like anybody else. He’s quite a funny guy.”
Inside a cathedral-like pavilion at Whistling Straits, beneath sturdy wooden beams inside the unfinished stone walls where officials gathered Sunday evening for the champion’s toast, Vijay Singh listened as PGA president M.G. Orender ran through Singh’s career accomplishments before summoning the newly minted champion to the podium for a small flume of champagne.
“What he forgot to mention,” Singh told the crowd, “is that this is my 20th win on this Tour, and that was really big for me. That’s a lifetime exemption.”
Singh smiled widely, then added, “Now I can rest.”
His peers on Tour should be so lucky.