Singh happy to practice, play without pain

Vijay Singh at the Quail Hollow Championship.

Vijay Singh at the Quail Hollow Championship.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Vijay Singh smiled. Yes, the big Fijian cracked a few jokes, laughed and smiled again.

Amazing what red figures can do for a golfer’s disposition.

With his back feeling better, Singh opened with a 3-under 69 at The Players Championship.

To think, until recently back spasms had prevented Singh from hitting balls. Instead, Singh said he has been going for long walks and trips to the beach. No word on whether his layoff included romantic candlelight dinners.

Believe it or not, golf’s iron man and modern-day range rat, who never saw a bucket balls he didn’t want to empty, went three weeks without hitting balls. He tried painkillers, muscle relaxers and massage therapy, but nothing worked.

“It’s the worst kind of injury because it paralyzes you,” Singh said of his tender back. “You just have to rest. There’s nothing you can do.”

When asked how long it had been since that long of a layoff, Singh answered: “It’s been a while.”

OK, he did confess that he sneaked over to TPC Sawgrass for some chipping. Some habits are hard to break.

Since practice recommenced, Singh’s been wearing the Ecco shoes made famous by Fred Couples. But he stopped short of sporting them in the tournament.

“I don’t think it’s the shoes,” Singh joked. “There are too many guys yelling out, ‘Those are Freddy’s shoes you’ve got on.’ So I kind of had enough of that.”

In his prime, we marveled at Singh’s incredibly limber swing, which permitted a full, fluid and powerful motion through the ball. After his opening round at TPC, Singh pronounced his back better but nothing confirmed that it remains an issue more than his declaration that he was going to hit balls for an hour. Max.

This from a guy who practices so much he endorses a mat. This from a guy that when the Tour re-constructed the practice range at TPC Sawgrass a few years ago, they worked around a patch of grass for Singh. He’s had little choice but to curtail his all-day sessions.

Age, injuries and a balky putter have contributed to Singh’s fall to No. 42 in the latest Official World Golf Rankings. But talk about staying power: Singh has been in the top 50 since July 5, 1992. He needs to remain inside that figure to avoid 36-hole qualifying for the U.S. Open, which wouldn’t be any fun on his back, and to keep his string of 63 consecutive majors alive (dating to the 1994 British Open).

This year Singh, 47, has struggled to get into a rhythm. After a season-best T-4 at the Honda Classic, Singh pulled out of the Transitions Championships and Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and withdrew after nine holes at the Shell Houston Open when his back flared up. He missed the cut at the Masters and last week at the Quail Hollow Championship.

Yet Singh, in the role of the never-satisfied golfer, wiped the smile off his face when he talked about his 69.

“I guess it was better than 2 (under),” Singh said. “I let one or two get away.”

Singh’s first round at The Players, where he finished a career-best 2nd in 2001, included a string of four birdies in a row from Nos. 3-6 (on his back nine). He canned a 27-foot birdie putt at the par-4, 3rd hole to start the streak and then rolled in putts ranging from 8 to 12 feet.

He perked up when he returned to speaking about his back.

“I’ve had no problems for a week now,” Singh said.

After all the rest and relaxation, Singh is ready to return to his routine. By that he meant to play and play often. He said he intends to tee it up at all three legs of the Texas swing, beginning next week in San Antonio at The Valero Texas Open and continuing with the HP Byron Nelson Championship and Crowne Invitational at The Colonial.

“I need to play a few in a row,” Singh said.

Sure beats sitting on the couch.

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