Vijay Singh: In the final analysis, rhythm's the thing for Vijay the Swing

Time and the powerful young wannabes are enemies to a Fijian intent on ruling Augusta. James Corrigan spoke to him in Sawgrass
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The Independent Online

It was 10, perhaps 15, minutes after he had just made a rather limp-wristed fist of attempting to win his first Players' Championship, and Vijay Singh should really have been acting in the time-dishonoured fashion of the modern sporting superstar. Yep, he should have waved away the reporter, petulantly thrown his spikes into the boot, sped off to his home, which very conveniently was just a short hike down the road, cracked open a cool one, switched on anything but the Golf Channel and settled in for a night of self-delusion, whispering to himself, "To hell with it, I'm loaded anyway".

But Vijay didn't. It's just not his way. Instead, he stood there in that emptying players' car-park, next to his own gleaming wagon, and started to analyse... and analyse, and analyse, and analyse. Indeed, he analysed so intensely it made you want to scream, "Hey, quit the analysing, just give me some fluff". But Vijay couldn't. It's not his way.

Singh had been avoiding this particular journalist since the Thursday evening, when he had rumbled his pursuer was more interested in Augusta "the first major" than Sawgrass "the fifth major". Not that it's an unprec-edented journalistic tactic; players are usually more than happy to skip over the event at hand to discuss the Major looming. But to Singh this is absolute anathema; his competitive instinct instructs, "If you're in it, you win it". And how can you possibly win it if your mind's not even on it?

So as he left that press area, Singh tapped his newest stalker on the shoulder and asked: "Let me concentrate on this week, will you? It's not appropriate to be talking Masters yet." But three nights later it suddenly was appropriate, and Vijay's legend-ary focus had already switched.

"It's time to forget about this tournament and look forward to Augusta," he said, at last. "I have a week off now, and if I use it properly, working on the right stuff, I will show up in Georgia ready. I'm sure of it. I'm very close to playing good, very good. I know it's there, know it's not far away. All I need is a little work and a little mental positivism.

"You get into a lull and start thinking of all the bad things. I have to start thinking of all the good things. I believe I'm going to have a good year. I don't know if it's going to be a great one. May- be in Augusta we'll find out. See, it's all to do with my rhythm..."

When Singh starts referring to his "rhythm" it's advisable to go off, make a cup of tea, complete a Sudoku - and then repeat the process. However glazed the eyes are in front of him, Singh is content to bang on and on about the technicalities and utter statements that sound rather worthy going into the tape recorder but on later listening fail to make a lot of sense to the ignorant. A classic here was: "It's like a bow and arrow. You pull the bow to the max and let it go. I'm not quite doing that." At times like this, Vijay and his game really do seem indistinguishable. Where exactly does Singh start and the swing stop?

Over the years, many have found it too easy to say that they don't, that it's all just one big circle of obsession, and this, of course, is what has led to the cruel write-offs: that he is a mechanic to Tiger Woods's artist, man-made to Ernie Els's innate, blend to Phil Mickelson's single malt. None of which bothers Singh very much. Probably because it just plain isn't true.

Sure, Singh practises longer and hence more diligently than any of them - although Woods's coach, Hank Haney, has raised sceptical eyebrows at that claim - but in public he is also more natural than any of them. While Woods has mastered the PR ploy of saying plenty but giving away nothing, and Mickelson's smile continues to be the most expertly erected façade in sport, Singh rivals Els for his transparency. But unlike nice-guy Ernie, wise-guy Vijay cannot hold back. No, this tongue never was for biting.

"It seems to me that it's just like top guys have almost conceded nowadays," he said at Sawgrass, waging war on the pen nibs once again. "It's like we arrive at the tournament and they've conceded if Tiger is playing. That's the feeling that I don't have. I'm more aggressive. I want to go out there and take it on, and if my game gets back to like it was, I'll be there. I'm working very hard towards that."

Woods knows how hard. Eighteen months ago the supposedly uncatchable world No 1 had to sit there open-mouthed, just like that snoring hare, and watch as an opponent emerged from his shell to overtake him. Granted, Tiger's game had fallen asleep somewhat, but with nine PGA Tour victories in 2004 (matching Woods's best) Singh's had sprung into a seemingly everlasting life.

"Yeah, that was fun," recalled Singh. "It was a result of hard work. I mean, I've always followed the old-timers, Ben Hogan and Gary Player, and they always thought that to get good, you've got to practise. The more you do it, the more it pays off. So that's what I did. And in a way the chase was more fun. The sense that No 1 was on the horizon made you work a little harder and play a little better. But, you know, once I was the No 1, I had a lot of fun doing it."

Singh stopped as he was saying it, no doubt to reflect on the six months he enjoyed at a summit that Tiger had governed, uninterrupted, for a record five years. While his fall since has hardly been vertiginous (he won five times last year, after all, although he is still waiting for his first W of 2006), there has definitely been a drop-off in his giddying consistency. "It's kind of disappointing not being up there week in, week out and not feeling the same excitement, the same adrenaline you felt a year ago," Singh admitted. "I still want to go get it, to find what I had. The enthusiasm in me to be No 1 is as strong as it ever was. And I think I'm capable of doing that. It's not going to happen in the next two or three weeks, as I'm 10 points behind Tiger [in the world rankings] and that's huge. That's 10 wins, and he's not going to stop winning in the meantime. But don't count me out. I'm going to be up there again. I just have to step up, that's all."

More likely, at the age of 43, it will require something resembling a quantum leap, beginning with one gigantic bound at Augusta this week. But to discount the Fijian from doing so is to discount an entire career of the impossible; of the poor boy escaping the Pacific Islands via some hitherto unheard-of route called golf; of the desperate wannabe on the Asian Tour escaping the shadow cast by a ban for "cheating"; of the élite professional escaping an even more imposing shadow cast by a genius who comes along once every few sporting generations.

No wonder, when he won the green jacket that offered him credibility in 2000, he was wont to bellow into the Augusta night air: "Kiss my ass, everybody." He had his Malaysian wife, Ard-ena Seth, and his son, Qass Seth, by his side at the time, but it was still hard not to label Singh as the loner who had just proved the rest of the world wrong.

"I'm not totally obsessed by golf," he has been known to say. "I do have a life outside it." But when the rest see him teeing it up every week, and, in his off-time, robbing the driving-range attendants of their sleep, perhaps they can be forgiven for speculating that here really is a man who is only Singh when he's winning. And when he declares an unrelenting hunger for more, at his age, you accept that this is no normal competitor, no normal life.

"The important thing for me is not to start worrying about these long hitters, not try to keep up with these young kids coming through," he said, sizing up his biggest opponent yet - time. "Bubba Watson, JB Holmes and a few other young guys out there just hit it forever, and watching them makes me feel like I've gone backwards. But golf is a great equaliser, you can make up with iron shots and you can make up with putting and chipping. That's why it is such a beautiful game.

"All I've got to do is keep my rhythm and trust it. I'm very critical of my swing and my expectancy gets me into trouble. I'm hitting good shots to 15 feet and not happy with them. My caddie said to me the other day, 'Why not just go out and trust it and play it?' And he's right.

"So yes, I want to try to relax a bit more, but I have to be positive as well. If I don't want to go out there and get it, I fear it will slip away. And I feel it's right to be expectant going into Augusta because I do have a great chance of winning. You know, it's all to do with my putting. A few weeks ago I found out that I was standing too far away from the ball, which made me reach out and give me too much room for movement. I moved the ball closer to myself so my eyes are right over the ball and..."

His voice drifted off towards the land of the initiated. Singh must have been analysing again. Forever analysing.

LIFE & TIMES

NAME: Vijay Singh.

BORN: 22 February 1963, Lautoka, Fiji.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 2in, 14st 12lb.

EARLY CAREER: Turns pro in 1992; wins first title at Malaysian PGA Championship, 1984.

HIGHLIGHTS: Wins first European Tour title at the Volvo Open, 1989; wins first US PGA Tour title at the Buick Classic, 1993, voted PGA Tour rookie of the year; wins first major in US PGA Championship at Sahalee in 1998; wins his second major at the US Masters in 2000; 18 top-10 finishes in 27 starts in 2003; 12 consecutive top-10 finishes in 2004, winning US PGA Championship and then ending Tiger Woods' record run of 264 consecutive weeks as world No 1.

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