Winning last year's PGA Championship gave Vijay Singh the confidence and respect he needed. This week he aims to be the first repeat champion in 62 years.
Vijay Singh's journey to golf immortality may have covered more land and sea than any in the sport's history, and it has little to do with the distance between his birthplace in Fiji and his mansion in Florida.
Singh was once an accused cheater, an outcast who retreated to the jungle of Borneo, where he occasionally taught oil magnates but more often spent solitary days beating ball after ball.
Those humble times turned Singh into a top-notch golfer, one regarded as easily the hardest worker in the game. From his worst professional nightmare, Singh emerged as one of the world's best. Now he is the reigning PGA champion.
Singh, 36, defends his PGA Championship title this week at Medinah Country Club, where the tournament begins Thursday. He'll be considered among the favorites, simply because of his prodigious length off the tee and his uncanny accuracy. Singh tied for third at the U.S. Open in June and tied for 24th at the Masters, part of a streak in which he finished among the top 25 in 13 straight tournaments.
"Once I won last year, my attitude changed," Singh said of his victory at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash. "I thought it was never going to happen. I would just go playing golf tournaments, make a living out of it. But now I'm looking forward to playing every major there is.
"I think winning the PGA kind of got me over that little hill that I was always trying to get to. I have a lot of respect from a lot of other players. I go out there, and they look at me differently now, especially the experienced players who have won majors."
This week, Singh will attempt to become the first player in 62 years to defend his PGA title, while also striving to join the exclusive club of multiple major-championship winners. He enters the tournament ranked fourth in the world behind David Duval, Tiger Woods and Davis Love.
Singh simply looks forward to playing _ and practicing. His range sessions are legendary around the PGA Tour. Steve Elkington, a friend of Singh's who won the 1995 PGA Championship, termed Singh's practice habits "mindless." Two-time PGA champion Nick Price joked about trying to stay on the practice tee as long as Singh to see if he could do it.
"I've never seen anyone work as hard as that man does," Price said. "The guy's torn up more practice tees. I wonder how much earth he's moved over the years."
Singh's perseverance undoubtedly stems from his stormy history. He turned professional in 1982 at age 18, taking his game to the Australian PGA Tour. From there, he went to the Asian tour, where he ran into trouble at the 1985 Indonesian Open in Jakarta.
The tournament director ruled that Singh improved his score by one stroke before signing his card. He later was suspended indefinitely from the Asian tour.
Singh has contended that there was a "misunderstanding" and that he was unfairly punished. He denies altering his card.
Regardless, the suspension never was lifted, and Singh looked for a way to survive. He took a series of club pro jobs in Borneo, where he spent the steamy afternoons when nobody wanted lessons working tirelessly on his own game.
"I was out there hitting balls in the jungle in 100-degree heat and wondering all the time how I would get on tour," Singh said. "I don't think about it much but my wife talks about it and she says it was the best time of our lives. It was so simple."
Singh often tells of playing money games with oil barons. In one particular match, Singh said the equivalent of $700 was on the line _ money he didn't have _ when he came to the last hole, a par 5, and knocked his tee shot out of bounds. But Singh made eagle on his second ball, taking par and winning the match.
Armed with confidence and an ever-improving game, Singh moved on to Africa, where he won the 1988 Nigerian Open and became the leading money winner on the Safari Circuit. That earned him a European tour card, and he won nine times on five tours between 1989 and '92.
He earned his PGA Tour card in 1992 and since has captured eight tournament titles and earned more than $8-million.
Now he's looking for more.
"I can't wait to defend my title," Singh said. "Once you've won it, you know you can do it."
COURSE: 7,401 yards, par 72.
FIELD: 125 tour pros, 25 club pros.
PURSE: About $3-million. Last year, the winner received $540,000.
DEFENDING CHAMP: Vijay Singh.
MAJORS AT MEDINAH: 1949 U.S. Open, 1975 U.S. Open, 1990 U.S. Open, 1988 U.S. Senior Open.