Milkha Singh looks to fill void in father's legacy

Jeev Milkha Singh

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AKRON, Ohio – The boy didn’t have shoes for years. He grew up poor in a farming village in India. He would walk barefoot to school, not that he got much of a formal education. But that was no big deal compared with this haunting pre-teen development: He saw his parents and other relatives slaughtered in rioting during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The boy, Milkha Singh, was driven to battle through all that deprivation. After three unsuccessful tries, he finally got into the army late in his teens. One day, in his first sports competition, he won a distance race and discovered he had a gift as a runner. Then he was advised to become a sprinter.

The poor kid with nothing would go on to run in three Olympics, in 1956, ’60 and ’64, and become known as The Flying Sikh. He became so accomplished that he was the favorite in the 400 meters at those 1960 Games in Rome. He did break the Olympic record in that event but finished fourth, losing the bronze in a heartbreaking photo-finish.

His compelling story is being circulated these days for myriad reasons. The Olympics are upon us. A movie on his inspirational life – called “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,” meaning “Run Milkha Run” – is in production and due out in January. And his only son, the professional golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, relished in relating the tale and its impact Tuesday at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.

“With the hardships he faced, he just had a desire to do something in life,” Jeev Singh said of his father, one of India’s greatest athletes ever.

The father would pass on the relentless work ethic, and an urging to be humble, to his son. Jeev Singh, 40, has an unorthodox, homemade swing but has managed to springboard off his father’s example and achieve much on the global golf stage.

It’s reasonable to suggest the Milk Man has milked a lot out of what he has. To wit: In 2006, he became the first Indian to crack the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. The next year, he was the first Indian in the Masters. The next year, he cracked the top 10 in a major, the PGA Championship. And in 2009 he finished fourth in a World Golf Championship, at Doral.

Earlier this month, the junior Singh, a passionate and congenial man, won the Scottish Open. It was his fourth victory on the PGA European Tour. He has also succeeded six times in Asia and four in Japan. All that means he gets noticed when he goes out in India.

“(My father) still jokes with me whenever we are out in public that more people take autographs from him than from me,” Singh said. “He said, ‘I think you need to do a little better.’ ”

A nudge. Always a nudge from a parent who would be friendly but firm. When the son turned professional, dad said, “You’d better work hard.” Years ago, father and son would have arguments over such ethic. And the refrain never varied.

“He always kept repeating the same thing all the time – discipline and hard work,” said Singh, who not surprisingly for years played more tournaments around the world than anyone else. “I said, ‘Dad, come on; that’s enough.’ And he still does it to this day. I say, ‘Come on, Dad. I’m 40 now.’ He says, ‘No, you still don’t get it.’ ”

After Singh won the Scottish and then returned home from the Open Championship, he decided to take a breather and to spend time with his family for the first time in five weeks. He heard dissent about the rest from one particular corner. His father told him, “Son, you are not hitting balls like you have in the past.”

Healthy again after battling injuries during the past three years, Singh seeks to get back into the world top 50 this year. At the moment, he’s 87th. That’s why he views this tournament and next week’s PGA Championship as important chances for him – chances that will come after he jettisons jet lag from a 20-hour trip from India to Akron on Monday.

As for his father, now retired after serving as director of sports in the India state of Punjab, there were plenty of important competitive days. He won gold medals in the 200 and 400 in the 1958 Asian Games and the 400 gold in the Commonwealth Games the same year.

No day, though, was more significant than the one in Rome. He led that 400 final just past the midway mark. But he thought he was running at too fast of a pace, so he decided to slow down a bit. In a flash, three runners passed him and he never recovered, finishing fourth. Never mind that his time of 45.6 seconds was better than the previous Olympic best or that it wasn’t bettered by an Indian track athlete until the 1984 Olympics. There was lingering pain.

“The mistake that I committed would rankle in my heart till the end of my days,” Milkha Singh wrote in an Indian newspaper years later. “The gold medal on which I had staked my life eluded me. ... Two sorrowful events will always remain with me: one is Partition, in which my parents were butchered, and the other is the race in Rome, where through my own fault I missed winning the gold for my country.”

Little wonder then that Jeev Singh can’t help but think of his father during these Olympics and set his own sights on competing when golf returns to the Games in 2016 in Brazil.

“If I represent India in the Olympics, it would be one of the best things to happen to my family,” Jeev Singh said. “I think it would be one of the best gifts I could give my father.”

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