Sept. 7: As a child, he smacked golf balls off the beach at low tide and as a caddie, he would pick up tips and file them away. Yesterday, Vijai Singh reached the zenith, ending Tiger Woods’ 264-week reign as world number one.
The workaholic Fijian of Indian descent, the hottest player in the circuit over the last 14 months, became the first golfer from outside the US to own the top spot since South African Ernie Els in June 1998 when he won the Deutsche Bank Championship in Massachusetts on Monday.
Asked how it felt to be world number one, the 41-year-old said: “It’s great and I can’t wait to celebrate.”
Singh, whose father was an aeroplane mechanic who taught golf, had made no secret of his desire to dislodge Woods. “It has been my goal and I wanted to be number one before I finished playing competitively,” he said. “…But it kind of interfered with my play. I was too concerned about that and I wasn’t focused on what I was supposed to do.
“So I totally refocused myself and said: ‘Well, let’s not worry about the world ranking. If I play well, win tournaments, it will happen’.”
Woods tried to hide his disappointment. “I’ve had a good run and (being number two) isn’t too bad, is it'” the 28-year-old American said.
It was left to the new champion to put victory and defeat in perspective. “Who knows' He (Woods) could go out there next time and regain it (the world number one ranking),” Singh said.
For the game’s hardest-working man, Singh’s rise to the pinnacle could not have come on a more appropriate day — Monday was US Labor Day, dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.
Singh is known for his work ethics, spending hours on the driving range day after day to perfect his distance and accuracy until the setting sun finally forces him indoors. Even as a child in Fiji, he would sneak over the fence at Nadi Airport’s golf club to practise for hours and blast balls on the beach. Singh also used to play the role of a caddie to his father Mohan and friends in the same club.
“It’s not like he goes out there and hits 20 balls and goes home,” Woods said of the man who dethroned him. “A lot of us do that. We reset our swing, and we go home. He’ll stand out there for hours upon hours, and then he’ll go work out.”
Singh's home in Florida, whe-re he now lives with wife Andrea Seth, includes a gymnasium. He spends three hours a day working out six days a week and is joined at events by a fitness trainer. Singh, too, appeared set to keep his reputation intact. "…I'm working harder so there's no telling what I'm going to do when I'm 42," he said.
Both his brothers are professional golfers and all three were taught by their father. Singh's brothers Krishna and Mira live with their sister Anita and mother Parvati in Australia but Mohan has opted to remain in Fiji.
Success has not come easy. If his victory in Boston lifted his 2004 earnings above the $7 million mark, there was a time when as a fledgling pro Singh was so strapped for money that he wore the same pants and played the same ball round after round.
In Fiji, a South Pacific nation of some 800,000 people, radio stations were flooded with calls from well-wishers. "I think we should all be very proud of Vijai but he has made personal sacrifices, he has worked very hard to get the number one spot," former Pri-me Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, a keen golfer and former president of the Fiji Professional Golfers Association, said.
"We congratulate him, his wife and son. Vijai has done us proud."
If Fijians rejoiced, one Indian - whom Singh had helped "immensely" with tips - spoke of the ace golfer's strengths. "I have come across many professionals but Vijai stood way above them because of his down-to-earth attitude," said 26-year-old Ajay Gujral, a golf teaching professional trained by the European Golf Teachers Federation, Kent, England.
"Discipline has always been the mantra for Vijai's success and he learnt it from his father, Mohan. He learnt the game from his father the hard way and has stuck to the rulebook," Gujral said in Chandigarh.
Although he was born in Fiji, Singh has not forgotten his Indian roots. "A lot has been said about me not recognising my roots, which is not true," he had said on a visit to the country two years ago.
"I am an Indian and my roots are Indian. My nationality is Fijian, but I am of Indian origin. Coming here is, in a sense, like coming home."