Rich reward for Vijay Singh

THE journey has been long and often arduous but the rewards in 2004 have been priceless for world golf number one Vijay Singh.

The globe-trotting Fijian, who once worked as a bouncer at a bar in Scotland and was also a struggling club professional in Borneo, is now basking in the afterglow having produced one of the most successful years in golfing history.

At the age of 41, he became the first player to earn more than $10 million in a single PGA Tour season after winning nine times in 29 starts. Only Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan (twice) and Sam Snead have won more times in a single campaign.

Singh, virtually unstoppable in 2004, clinched his third career major at the U.S. PGA Championship in August and ended Tiger Woods's five-year reign as world number one the following month.

A tie for ninth at the season-ending Tour Championship lifted his earnings to a remarkable $10,905,166 and he was the clear-cut choice as PGA Tour Player of the Year after balloting of the tour members.

This accolade, the official seal of approval by his peers, was especially sweet for the Fijian after he controversially lost out to Woods for last year's honour.

"I had something to prove this year, knowing that last year it was so close," said Singh after receiving the prestigious Jack Nicklaus Trophy, as the Players' Player, in New York. "Last year, I was disappointed. I thought winning the money at least was a consistency of the whole season."

Woods clinched the 2003 award for an unprecedented fifth consecutive season, despite failing to capture any of the four majors for the first time since 1998.

REUTERS

Singh, the game's hottest player over the previous three months with two wins and nothing worse than a tie for sixth in his last eight PGA Tour starts, had to settle for ending 2003 on top of the U.S. money list.

This year, though, was a very different story.

Woods, going through a revamp of his swing, was a shadow of the player who ruled the golfing world in record-breaking style in 2000. The workaholic Singh, meanwhile, seemed to get better and better as the season unfolded.

By the year-end, he had produced 18 top-10 finishes in 29 tour starts, with just one missed cut. His haul of nine wins was the most in a single season since Woods in 2000, also with nine.

"This year was kind of a landslide," said Singh, whose work ethic is unparalleled in the modern game. "It's been a big year, and it's so satisfying to know it has come to this. It was well worth the journey.

"As they say, it's really hard to get to the top, but to stay there is going to be the hardest thing," added the Fijian of Indian decent whose name means `victory' in Hindi.

"I feel like I'm running, and everyone is chasing me. I'm just running as fast as I can but, sooner or later, I'm going to get tired and guys are going to catch me.

"But I want to stay there — I want to keep ahead of the pack as long as possible."

Singh paid tribute to his long-suffering wife Ardena Seth, who always kept the home fires burning while her husband toiled away on the practice range.

"All of the work out there in Asia, Africa, Europe, Borneo and when I was a bouncer in Scotland and got home at four o'clock in the morning and you were there waiting up for me — this is for you," he said. Since starting out as a club professional in Borneo in the early 1980s, Singh has been a byword for dedication. He once memorably warned a caddie that he opened up and closed the practice range, routinely hitting 500 balls in a day.

Tiger Woods, who reigned supreme as the No. 1 golfer for five years, was displaced by Vijay Singh. -- Pic. REUTERS-

The tall Fijian has plied his trade across the globe since turning professional in 1982, winning titles in Malaysia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Spain and the United States, among many other countries.

With his 42nd birthday just two months away, he concedes he has limited time left at the pinnacle of the game.

"I don't have that many years to contend — probably another five or six — and I'd like to win a few more before I finish," he said.

"Physically I feel very strong, probably as strong as I've ever felt. But it's hard work," added Singh, who works out twice a day with his personal trainer and close friend Joe Diovisalvi.

"I'm striving to be physically in good shape until I quit playing, and I don't know when that's going to be."