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Archive for Sunday, June 15, 2003

Vijay, Annika great for each other

June 15, 2003

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— In a weird way, a weird guy did himself and Annika Sorenstam a valuable favor when he blasted her for playing in the Colonial.

When Vijay Singh made the comments in a brief interview with one Associated Press reporter, he and Sorenstam shared only this: virtual anonymity outside golf. Most of America didn't know or care that she was the Tiger Woods of women's golf or that he had won two major championships -- the Masters and PGA -- and established himself as one of the world's top 10 players.

But when Singh invalidated some valid criticisms of Sorenstam with a mean-spirited "I hope she misses the cut," he provided her with what every good fairy tale needs. He became Vijay the Villain, scourge of talk shows across America. For two weeks leading up to the Colonial, Vijay vs. Annika dominated even the non-sports airwaves.

No way nearly as many non-fans would have been drawn into poor little Annika's quest without Vijay's vitriol. He almost deserves a cut of the endorsement millions she's reaping from winning the country's heart while missing Colonial's cut. But Singh doesn't need the money.

All Vijay the Villain has done amid the on-course heckling and media screaming is win the Byron Nelson Classic a month ago and shoot 63 Friday to tie for the U.S. Open lead. Though Olympia Fields is a par-70 course instead of the typical par 72 at Open venues, Singh's round tied the lowest ever in a major championship. It included an eagle, two bogeys and a near birdie on No.17 that would have given him a 62.

Until recently, I found Singh's typically whiny interviews thoroughly uninteresting. But he has emerged as an extremely atypical golfer.

Singh feeds off the Vijay-vs.-the-world controversy.

Most pros want to stand out only on the leader board. Most work as hard saying nothing in interviews as they do hitting balls on the range. Most just want to endorse their Titleist balls or their Taylor Made drivers and avoid any issue that might alienate customers or competitors.

Most players in Singh's spikes the past few weeks would have needed counseling and a month off. Day after day, columnists demand that he finally stand up and apologize for what he said about poor little Annika. Friday, one heckler was ejected for repeatedly hurling pro-Annika insults at Singh.

Colin Montgomerie might have required a straitjacket. All Singh did was dismissively wave his putter at the guy and make two birdies in a row.

Vijay the Villain has always thrived on being the outcast. It's as if his limber limbs and resilience are made of rubber.

In 1985, Singh was caught cheating -- improving his score by one shot to make a cut -- and was suspended from the Asian Tour. He battled back. He said he was cold-shouldered when he first tried to win a spot on the American tour. He often found a spot at the far end of the range and hit practice balls until his hands bled.

Singh, a 40-year-old from Fiji, has known prejudice. He was offended that Sorenstam wasn't required to qualify for the men's tour -- he certainly had to. He said her one-time appearance was mostly a publicity stunt, and from her agent's perspective, Singh was right. "Annika" became a household name. But she certainly didn't give herself a chance to prove to Singh (and other players who privately applauded his comments) that she could regularly compete with men.

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