Singh journey ends with green jacket

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 10, 2000

The Associated Press

Augusta, Ga.

Monday, April 10, 2000

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Augusta, Ga. – No one ever came farther to get a green jacket than Vijay Singh. The final leg was an uphill climb to the 18th green Sunday at Augusta National, where Singh completed his troublesome journey around the world to claim the most prestigious prize in golf.

The Fiji native won the Masters by meeting every challenge from the biggest stars in the game, closing with a 3-under 69 for a three-stroke victory over Ernie Els.

Singh rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole, kissed the ball as he removed it from the cup and embraced his family. His 9-year-old son, Qass, taped a message to his bag that said, ”Poppa, Trust Your Swing.”

He did, following those directions better than anyone else.

Singh ignored an early charge by Tiger Woods, and watched David Duval self-destruct.

He has now won two of the last six major championships, which validates him as one of the game’s top players.

Once a teaching pro in the jungle of Borneo, the 37-year-old Singh played tours on five continents and was banned from two of them, one for a cheating allegation that he has long denied but has haunted him throughout his career.

Singh, who won the PGA Championship at Sahalee in 1998, played with such composure in the face of so many challengers. And that might be enough to finally shift the attention to a game that weathered a wicked weekend at Augusta.

He finished at 278 and earned $828,000 for his eighth career victory.

Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, couldn’t get a birdie putt to fall on the last three holes and was at 281.

The biggest threat came from Duval, in contention on the back nine Sunday at Augusta for the third straight year. His dreams died with a risky shot that wound up in Rae’s Creek, a bogey on the par-5 13th. A bogey on the final hole gave Duval a 70, and he finished in a tie for third with Loren Roberts.

Woods, trying to pull off the greatest 36-hole comeback in Masters history, got within three of the lead but played even-par on the back and finished fifth, six strokes back.

”I was so focused on what I was doing,” Singh said. ”It meant a lot.”

And it showed when last year’s winner, Jose Maria Olazabal, helped him slip into the coveted green jacket.

”It feels great,” a beaming Singh said.

”I don’t think anyone should be surprised that Vijay Singh won this golf tournament,” Duval said. ”He’s a wonderful player.”

Singh set the tone for his victory Sunday morning. With frost melting into dew, he returned to the course to complete his third round and made two critical par putts that enabled him to maintain his three-stroke cushion over Duval.

That paid dividends on the back nine Sunday, when Singh managed to escape danger twice without losing his lead.

Clinging to a two-stroke lead over Duval, Singh hit his approach into the pond left of the 11th green. After taking his penalty drop, he hit a delicate chip up to 4 feet and dropped only one shot.

Then on the par-3 12th, he hit over the green into the most daunting bunker at Augusta. Faced with a shot that sloped down the green toward more trouble, he blasted out to 2 feet – the same shot Olazabal pulled off to win last year.

Duval, who lives near Singh in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was still poised to win his first major championship until he made a mistake that will live with him until his next chance.

He selected a dangerous route to the par-5 13th green, then bowed his head as the ball plunked into the water.

”I played perfectly well enough to win the golf tournament,” Duval said, but, ”the day did not turn out like I wanted.”

Ditto for Els, the 30-year-old South African who got word Saturday that his buddy had won a $2 million lottery and thought it might be a good omen.

”I felt like I was going to win the tournament when I stepped on the first tee,” Els said. ”I was really trying to push too hard.”

Woods, an overwhelming favorite at the start of the week, wound up missing key shots on the par 5s. He still needs five more green jackets to catch Jack Nicklaus.

”I knew going into this week that every time I play, this game is very fickle,” Woods said. ”Even though I didn’t get off to a good start Thursday, I gave myself a chance. I got back into the tournament and had a chance on Sunday.”

Woods, who opened with a 75 and was nine strokes back after two days, got the deficit down to three strokes early and seemed poised to pounce.

Singh was in the fairway, waiting for the group ahead to tee off on No. 4, when he glanced up at the large white leaderboard in time to see another birdie posted for Woods. Singh proceeded to hit long and three-putt from 50 feet off the fringe.

Woods went out in 33. He was 4 under for the tournament and slowly gaining momentum for the kind of back-nine charge that have become so famous at Augusta.

But Singh’s biggest threat was Duval. He made a couple of 8-foot putts early to close a three-stroke deficit to one, then really began to apply the pressure with birdie putts from 12 feet on No. 6, a good pitch to 2 feet on the par-5 eighth, and a sliding 6-footer on No. 9.

What did that get him? Nothing.

Singh matched every birdie and answered every great approach by Duval with one of his own – and took that slim lead to the back nine.

Woods ran out of chances.

There were too few fist pumps and too many sighs, none louder than when his 4-foot birdie putt on the par-5 13th turned away. Only two Masters champions since 1992 have failed to birdie the hole, and it was the first time all week that Woods had to settle for par.

It could have worse.

Duval was exactly where he had planned on being for the past seven months. That’s when he started pounding his body into shape with heavy lifting, lots of running and a disciplined diet. All he wanted was a chance on the back nine of Augusta come Sunday, and here he was.

With one bad decision, and a bad swing to match, there he went.

Singh never gave him or anyone else a chance. Despite a three-putt bogey on the 16th, he was always in the fairway, always on the green.

Now, a man who once toiled in the most remote places on earth joins an exclusive club that includes the greatest players in the game.

What a journey.