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Published: 4/3/2001

A risky shot pays for Singh

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Bobby Jones believed that the very finest golfers should be able to reach par-5 holes in two shots, which explains why the par 5s at his monument, Augusta National Golf Club, are typically the four easiest holes on the course for competitors in the Masters, which begins Thursday.

The softest touch of them all, through the years, has been the 500-yard 15th hole. Since 1942, when such records were first kept, Masters players have averaged 4.73 shots at what many call Augusta's glory hole.

It was the site of Gene Sar|azen's famed dou|ble eagle, the shot that put the Masters on the map in 1935. It was the hole Jack Nicklaus eagled in 1986 - he hit a 4-iron from 202 yards into a stiff breeze to within 12 feet - en route to his final and most memorable Masters title.

It was the hole where, in 1992, Fred Couples watched with an anguished look as his ball spun back off the green, down the shaved bank toward Rae's Creek, then somehow received divine intervention, defied gravity and checked up on dry land. Couples took his par and won the green jacket.

Yet despite its ease, No. 15 has dished out as much gore as glory. Billy Joe Patton (1954), Curtis Strange ('85) and Seve Ballesteros ('86), to name a few, have seen Masters dreams die as approach shots splashed into Rae's Creek.

It is the hole where Chip Beck, badly in need of an eagle to mount a stretch bid, refused to gamble and laid up in 1993. Psychologically, the aftermath of that decision derailed his career.

No such criticism would have befallen Vijay Singh last April as he stared at the green from some 210 yards away during the final round of the Masters. He'd pulled his drive to the left edge of the generously wide fairway and managed to find the only possible trouble off the tee, a giant oak tree that invades from the left rough.

He would have to hit an exaggerated draw clear of the tree off a downslope, keep it out of the trees to the right of the green, get it over Rae's Creek and keep it left of the greenside bunker.

Or he could let discretion be the better part of valor, laying up and hoping to stick a wedge shot close enough to make birdie.

"I never at one time thought I was going to lay up," Singh said later that afternoon, after winning the championship. "It didn't cross my mind."

He took his 4-iron, hit an extraordinarily high draw, let the ball get caught in the right-to-left breeze and watched it drop softly onto the green. One long putt, then a tap-in for birdie and Singh resumed his march into golf history.

Singh's career has been a remarkable, metaphorical mixture of incredible shots and others that drifted off the mark.

A struggling pro in the mid-1980s, the Fiji native had run up some debts in Australia before being banned from the Asian Tour after being accused of altering his scorecard in order to make the cut at the 1985 Indonesian Open.

(In a rare interview on the subject, Singh recently told Golf Digest that he simply signed an incorrect scorecard, which on the PGA Tour would have caused him no more distress than being disqualified from a tournament. He added that he felt his reported money problems in Australia and the fact he'd used bad language led to the decision.)

He found himself banished to a club pro job in Borneo, and it would be another three years before Singh, 38, would start breaking through on tours in Africa and Europe. His first PGA Tour victory came in 1993, the same year he led after two rounds of the PGA Championship at Inverness.

Now he has nine PGA Tour wins, including two major championships, and upwards of $12 million in earnings. All told, Singh has 28 worldwide victories.

He feels his two majors - he won the '98 PGA to go along with last year's Masters - have elevated him to a new level in most people's eyes.

"People look at majors a lot differently than if you win a money list or have a good year. I've won two now and that has changed a lot of people's minds. Winning one might be luck, but you can't be lucky twice."

Adding credibility is the fact that there have been very few fluke winners at Augusta.

"The golf course has a lot to do with that. It is wide open in some regards, but you still need very precise shots to get to the greens and get close to the holes. And if you're not putting well, it's a nightmare."

Singh proved to himself a year ago that he could find his way around Augusta National's slick, sloped greens.

"That was the major I felt would be the most difficult for me to win because of putting. I never thought I could putt those greens. I wasn't comfortable (last year) because they were still too fast. But I wasn't scared or nervous."

He doesn't expect to be nervous this week either.



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