Singh's South Seas style unlocks secrets of Augusta greens

The Masters: 'Golf is to Fiji what cricket is to America', says exotic champion who honed his skills in the rainforests of Borneo

Augusta's past champions have got used to some exotic concoctions for their dinner at the start of every Masters tournament. Next year add South Sea spice to the menu. "Exactly what will be a surprise," said the 64th Masters champion, Vijay Singh.

If champions are judged by the cut of their cloth, Singh has joined one of the most exclusive clubs in the game. "This is just like any other jacket, except the colour," he said of the addition to his wardrobe. He denied specially selecting his outfit to match but added: "I love the colour of green."

If a championship is judged by the quality of its leaderboard, then the 2000 Masters rated highly. Eight champions at majors in the top 13 not only points to the size of Singh's achievement but to the enduring subtleties of the Augusta National course.

Much was made of the encroachment of a little rough at the home of Bobby Jones' masterpiece. "The USGA has had too much to do with this tournament," said Doug Ford. If making Augusta more demanding - and yet, as Phil Mickelson pointed out, fairer since the greens did not have to be baked to concrete - leads to the 77-year-old Ford stepping aside for more able bodies will anyone notice?

Even Augusta cannot survive without some rough but what it does not need is the throttling four-inch high rough of a US Open. Singh, one of the sweetest swingers in the game, was able to find more greens in regulation than anyone else. He won by three strokes from Ernie Els, while David Duval and Loren Roberts shared third place. Tiger Woods finished six shots behind. Mickelson, Tom Lehman, Carlos Franco, Davis Love, Hal Sutton, Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Nick Price - marquee names all - completed the leaderboard.

Singh, who also led from the front to win the 1998 USPGA, was never headed during the final round as he rebuffed the challenges of Woods, Duval and Els. "Vijay is an awfully hard competitor," said Els. "This course has always suited his game. He has never really putted well here but he got the job done today."

"From tee to green I'm a good candidate to win here," Singh said. "I drive the ball long and hit my irons high. The only thing stopping me was the greens. Two years ago [when he missed the cut] I'd have said I couldn't win here because of my putting. Putting cackhanded has helped, but I've just tried to have a new attitude here. To enjoy trying to make a putt, rather than thinking how am I going to get this anywhere close?"

Changing tack, Singh added: "Golf is to Fiji what cricket is to America." His father, an aviation technician, was keen enough to introduce his three sons to the game and pass on his old sets of clubs. The 37-year-old has played in most parts of the world and been supported by his wife, Ardena, and latterly by his son, Qass. Long before Singh became established first in Europe and then on the USPGA Tour, his career stalled, however.

An incident occurred in Indonesia in 1983 which led Singh being banned from the Asian Tour for two years. Singh was accused of altering his scorecard to make the cut in an event. The Fijian maintains his marker had made a mistake but as the son of a prominent member of the Indonesian PGA, Singh was made the scapegoat.

Singh spent the time as a club pro in the rainforests of Borneo. "I would give five or six lessons a day and then spend the rest of the time practising," he said. "It was really hard. It would be 100 degrees every day, no matter if it was raining or the sun was shining. Ardena and I talked about that time after I won the USPGA. It's been a big change. We cherished the time we had there. It was a struggle, but it was a peaceful struggle."

Singh is legendary as being the first player to arrive on the practice range and the last to leave. "There is some truth in that," he said. "Four or five years ago I didn't have a coach so the only way I could find out how to improve was to beat balls all day. Now I have a Swedish coach so when he is over I work hard with him. But otherwise I only practise when I need to."

Singh owes much to his caddie of four years, the Scot Dave Renwick, who was bringing home his fourth major winner. Apart from his two for Singh, Renwick, known as "Edinburgh Dave", also carried for Jose Maria Olazabal in the 1994 Masters, and Steve Elkington for the USPGA title the following year.

Woods went to the turn in 33, but only gained one shot. Duval was out in 32 and three times threatened to draw level, but Singh matched the American's birdies. Amen Corner, as usual, proved critical. Singh pulled his second into the pond at the 11th, but got a favourable drop and saved bogey. He also got up and down from a bunker at the 12th before Duval found Rae's Creek at the 13th for a two-shot swing. When Singh hit the green in two with a four-iron at the 15th, even Els' late charge was not enough. Els had a putt to draw within one at the last, but claimed he was put off by the click of a photographer.

Duval had made no secret of his long-term preparations for the major season. "This feels terrible," he said. "Quite frankly I played well enough to win the tournament." Woods, the world No 1 and overwhelming favourite after winning virtually everything else for the last eight months, did not.

"I did not putt well enough on the first two days," Woods said. "I've had a pretty good year so far and what I want to do is put myself in contention every time I tee up. I gave myself a chance to win and I'm proud of that after the start I had."

His fifth place was still his second-best finish at Augusta, after his 1997 victory. "I set a lot of records that year but anyone can tune up their golf swing for one week. But can you do it for an entire career? That's the hard part. I changed my swing to be a better ball-striker so that even when I wasn't playing well I've got a chance to win."

No one is as consistent as Woods, but on the three most important weekends of the year so far - the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay and the Players Championship were the other two - Woods has not prevailed. It is not a one-man sport yet.


1963: Born Lautoka, Fiji, 22 February. 1982: Turns professional. 1984: Wins first professional title in Malaysian PGA Championship. 1988: Joint runner-up to Jesper Parnevik at European Tour qualifying school, graduating on second attempt. 1989: Wins Volvo Open Championship for first European Tour victory. 1990: Winner of El Bosque Open. 1992: Victories at Turespaña Masters and at the Volvo German Open. 1993: Finishes fourth in USPGA Championship at Toledo, in the process equalling the lowest round in any major by shooting 63. Wins Buick Classic. US Tour rookie of the year. 1994: Claims titles at Scandinavian Masters and Trophée Lancÿme. Completes best season on European Tour, finishing sixth in Order of Merit. 1995: Wins Phoenix Open and Buick Classic. 1996: Finishes fifth in USPGA Championship at Valhalla. 1997: Toyota World Matchplay champion. Wins South African Open, Memorial Tournament and Buick Open. Ties for 13th at US PGA Championship. 1998: Captures first major by winning USPGA Championship at Sahalee. Fifth non-American to win the title in the 1990s. Also wins Sprint International tournament in Colorado the following week. Finishes in third place on US money list. 1999: Wins Honda Classic. 2000: Wins second major with victory in US Masters at Augusta National on 9 April.