Singh on song to stay top of big-hit parade

On the day that Jack Nicklaus, the golfer of the ages, confirmed that he would take his 65-year-old bones out on to Augusta National for maybe the last time, one of his least heralded - and from time to time reviled - successors said that he, too, would play the game as long and as well as he could.

On the day that Jack Nicklaus, the golfer of the ages, confirmed that he would take his 65-year-old bones out on to Augusta National for maybe the last time, one of his least heralded - and from time to time reviled - successors said that he, too, would play the game as long and as well as he could.

It was something the world might have to suffer rather than enjoy, but that would never be his problem. He had done his work. He had got to where he wanted to be and every day it got a little sweeter.

Vijay Singh is nobody's dream golfer, perhaps not even his own. He doesn't make fantasy like Tiger Woods. He doesn't swing the driver as beautifully as Ernie Els. Here in much of America, where the reigning Masters champion and other member of the Big Four, Phil Mickelson, is almost as popular as Mom's apple pie, his best chance of being picked out would come with a lucky guess in an identity parade.

Nor does it help that 20 years ago he was banned from golf indefinitely after being charged with altering his card in order to beat the cut in the Indonesian Open. Nothing takes longer to clear in golf that the suspicion that you once cheated. It is a wound of unfathomable depth.

Unsurprisingly, the pain of that affair, in which he vehemently pleaded his innocence, sometimes seems to be still drawn across his soul.

But, then, as he said here yesterday with some force, he just happens to be the world's No 1 - a status that he has worked for hard enough to believe that at 42 he is capable of winning a second Green Jacket in the next few days - and his fourth major title. "How am I feeling?" he said with just a little edge in his voice. "I'm feeling comfortable, but then I have reason. The way I feel now I can go out there and beat anybody."

On other lips that might sound like the final stages of an all-consuming arrogance, but the big man from Fiji insists that the more he wins the deeper becomes his commitment to maintaining his position. It is as much need as ambition.

You are bound to ask him about the both the astonishing endurance of Nicklaus, who seven years ago came through Amen Corner with a distinct chance of winning what would have been his seventh Masters and 19th major, and the apparently unbreakable aura of the recently re-deposed Woods.

"You know," he replies, "once I reached No 1 last year, I thought, 'Wow, this is it', but the good thing was that a few days later I won again and I thought to myself, 'Well, let's see how long I can keep this'. Every time I win now it increases my self-belief. I just love being No 1, there's no hiding that. It is the ultimate achievement you can have being the world's No 1 and, no, I'm not going to let go of that easily.

"Tiger, Ernie, Phil... they are great players and it makes you proud when you hear us being compared to those of past eras, Nicklaus, Palmer, and Player, and then further back, Hogan, Snead, Byron Nelson. But in the end it's not about history, it's about your own feelings about what you are doing, and whether you can look at yourself and say, 'Yes, I worked for that. I did everything that I had to do, and I deserved what I got.

"How long can I keep doing it? No one really knows that, but I can say that I'm still hungry to win. You fight yourself into a certain position because of a lot of factors, and, yes, the quality of the opposition you know you have to be beat is a big factor. That pushes you on, gets you to the gym, makes you fight to be fit and in the right mood when you pick up a club.

"No doubt the form of Tiger in 2000 and 2001 pushed up the standard, made people realise that they had to fight to get anything at all at the top of the game. But sooner or later guys catch on, they want to get themselves up there. I was one of them. Going out there and hitting balls is not the only way to improve. Belief in yourself is the key."

The words do not pour out of Vijay Singh. They come haltingly at times, and almost invariably they have to be helped along, especially when the name of the Tiger is invoked. For a moment he looks into the middle distance, and then he snaps back with a passion that suddenly spills out. "You know something, I don't think I'm afraid of anybody out there now. I've gone past that point. Every morning I tell myself that if I go out worrying about Tiger or Phil or Ernie, then I'm in the wrong business."

That is something golf has suggested to him at times, and not so gently, but then Vijay Singh resolved the matter some time ago. "Yes, I feel comfortable," he repeated. For him, it is the greatest prize of all.

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