2006: From Fiji To Fame - Vijay Singh

Vijay Singh’s journey to the World Golf Hall of Fame has been long, difficult and so improbable as to resemble fiction. Not many, if any, in the shrine have weaved more compelling mosaics. Not many, if any, have hit as many golf balls or overcome as many obstacles. Now we know the true value of Singh’s unparalleled sweat equity. It’s called enshrinement.

The unlikely climb for the driven son of an airline technician began in a small, barracks-style, flat-roofed house he shared with four siblings on the side of a runway in Fiji. That Polynesian island republic in the Southwest Pacific is not exactly known as a golf breeding ground, with about 500 golfers and a dozen courses.

Not many other boys could be found walking, bag on shoulder, in a 4-foot-wide irrigation tunnel under a runway to turn a 45-minute walk to Nadi Airport Golf Club into a five-minute one. Not many could be found hitting hundreds of balls and dreaming in the shade of that mango tree by the 14th fairway.

“If you saw where he grew up and the golf course there, you’d say reaching the Hall of Fame would not even be attainable,” said Joey Diovisalvi, Singh’s strength and conditioning coach of almost seven years. “You’d say it was not possible. I saw it last year and it’s unbelievable how far he’s come. I saw children going to school wearing no shoes. I believe he saw a greater way of life back then and has had nothing else on his mind than dreaming his dream.”

The road to Singh’s Oct. 30 induction, too, would involve a detour that might have crushed most others. Singh overcame a suspension from the Asian Tour, handed down in 1985 after he was accused of improving his scorecard by one stroke at the Indonesian Open. He has described the incident as a “misunderstanding” and called the penalty unfair. With nowhere to compete, he ended up in a Borneo rain forest giving $10 lessons to truckers and lumberjacks and earning about $200 per month. He had little money in his pocket and sometimes little hope. He has called that part of his life “heartbreaking.”

“I was in a jungle practicing in 100-degree heat, thinking what I was going to do next,” Singh said after winning the first of his three major titles, the 1998 PGA Championship. “That was the lowest point. I never thought I’d come to America, much less win a golf tournament here.”

He would hit up to 1,000 balls per day while in exile in Malaysia, then make his way to Africa’s Safari Tour, then to Europe. He was poor enough that he once wore the same pants for four rounds and tried to use the same ball for an entire tournament. He moonlighted as a bouncer at an Edinburgh nightclub while trying to make ends meet on the PGA European Tour.

“It’s been a long, long journey, a hard journey,” Singh said. “Coming from where I did, (making the Hall) was never really in my wildest dreams. You can’t even find Fiji on a map if you try to look for it. To be where I am, it’s just very incredible. . . . To actually look and see where I grew up and how I used to practice and where I went from there . . . you can’t explain it in a few words.”

His admirable climb from the scrap heap has been fueled by a single-minded approach. He apparently has been driven by several things through the years: the hope of a better life, the love of the game, the need of money, the desire to belong, the need for success, Tiger Woods, the carrot of being ranked No. 1 in the world. The latter is something he achieved in 2004, when he became the sixth person to reach nine PGA Tour victories in a season.

That’s a lot of driving, a lot of climbing, a lot of calluses. But at 43, Singh still is not satisfied with a career that has brought him nearly $49 million in official PGA Tour earnings and more than

50 worldwide victories in 15 countries. All 29 of his Tour victories have come since he turned 30. Seventeen have come since he turned 40, tying him with Sam Snead for most wins post-40.

It would fit if the Hall positions his plaque and locker next to Ben Hogan’s, for there are many parallels. Both spent more time practicing than sleeping. Both bloomed late. Then there’s the guarded privacy, shy and introverted men holding the news media and public at arm’s length, sometimes with prickly personalities that overshadowed their sneaky senses of humor. And then there’s that dawn-to-dusk focus.

“I go to sleep thinking about golf, I wake up thinking about it,” Singh once said. “I have a family, but my mind is consumed by golf.”

He felt like he was playing hooky and falling behind when he went on a cruise with his wife, Ardena, a couple of years ago. He really doesn’t have any hobbies other than hitting balls and working out. When he’s home, he can be found working out with Diovisalvi for two hours in the morning starting at 6:30 and two hours at night starting at 6.

The exercising sandwiches 5 to 7 hours of ball hitting and 60 to 90 minutes of putting practice.

“The man is golf and golf is the man,” Diovisalvi said. “Golf is his passion, and he is unwilling to compromise the consistency of his routine to put his game where it needs to be.”

This is a man who shot 61 in a steady rain in the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship – perhaps the 2006 round of the year, for it was the day’s best by five strokes – then practiced in the rain afterward.

“I don’t think anyone in the history of the game has worked as hard as he has the last 6-7 years,” said Tom Pernice Jr., one of Singh’s closest friends on Tour.

Dissenters might be hard to find. Much harder to find than Singh, anyway. He’s probably down at the end of the range.

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