Bay Hill breakthrough ends frustrations for Hall of Famer
Vijay Singh's first start as a member of the PGA TOUR came in 1993 at the Bay Hill Club, courtesy of a personal invitation from Arnold Palmer, the legendary host whose name now adorns the tournament. Singh finished second in 1993 in the event that has become the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, heralding the success to come for the native Fijian, who has won 31 PGA TOUR titles, including three majors.
But the victories that piled up didn't include any at Bay Hill in one of his favorite events and one to which he had felt an emotional attachment. He would finish runner-up twice more and rack up 11 top-25 finishes in his first 14 appearances. The last of his second-place finishes came in 2005 when he hit into the water on the 72nd hole and saw Kenny Perry take the title. Little wonder he was feeling snake-bit -- until last year, that is, when the tournament was renamed in honor of Palmer, and Singh put on a weekend sprint that Arnie would have relished in his prime and beat Rocco Mediate by two strokes.
Singh, who has never missed the cut at Bay Hill, will again be among the favorites when the 30th edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard is held March 10-16 at the Bay Hill Club. The elite, limited-field event, played on the Palmer-designed championship course at Bay Hill, offers a $5.8 million purse and annually features one of the strongest fields in professional golf.
A former No. 1 player in the world, Singh, age 44, last year stormed from 46th place after the first round to win his 31st title and 19th since he turned 40 years old, a record previously held by Sam Snead. His run included three-under-par 67s on Saturday and Sunday despite nursing a bad ankle. He finished with an eight-under 272 total.
"I just think it's playing the right golf at the right time," said Singh, who also has won another 22 times abroad in a career begun in 1982. "You can be playing well and not win. Some good breaks, good shots at the right time, making the right putt at the right time makes all the difference."
Singh rattled off four birdies on the first nine the final day to seize control of the tournament from third-round leader Vaughn Taylor, and he didn't have to worry about how he would play the difficult 18th that had thwarted victory chances in the past. In 1994, Singh bogeyed the last two holes as Loren Roberts claimed the title. By winning for the 31st time on the PGA TOUR tied Singh with Harry Cooper for most by a foreign-born player.
"I think I owe it to Arnie inviting me there the first time I played in America, so I've played there every single year," said Singh who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006. "I know the golf course since -- I know exactly, except for the 18th hole that I hate alot (laughing), how to play it. I think the 18th hole cost me two tournaments there. Last year I had enough shots in hand where I knew even if I messed up I could have still won."
Since his victory Singh, one of the most dedicated workers on the practice range, has been working on changing his swing, and even though the results have been uneven during the process, Singh feels it will work out for him in the long run. He admits it's the biggest alteration he has ever undertaken. "I just thought I needed it," Singh said. "I mean, I almost fell over the other day when I saw a shot of my backswing at the U.S. Open, and I said, "Wow, I didn't know I was swinging that bad." It showed that if you get too complacent about your golf swing it can get from bad to worse."
As the 2008 season began, Singh admitted that it might take some time for him to get used to the new action under tournament conditions. "I think it's there, but my mind is still not believing it because it's quite a big change from what I used to have," he said. "My caddie says it's good. Everybody says it's good, but I think my mind is still not comfortable with it. Once I get going, I'll pretty much forget about thinking about it as much."
While Singh still hungers for more victories, he's also had a chance to reflect on what he's accomplished thus far. The number of victories is satisfying, but he's also proud of the fact that he's won 23 different titles on the PGA TOUR.
"I play a lot and I enjoy going to different tournaments and testing myself whether it's on the PGA TOUR or on other tours and courses around the world," he said. "I think it's nice to win different tournaments. A lot of it depends on your form at the time, but you also have to adjust and play in different conditions, and that makes you a better player. I've learned a lot over the years.
"I've worked hard to get to where I am," he added. "It's been good so far, but I also have more goals to accomplish, and that's why I continue to work on my swing and getting myself into better shape."
For tickets to the 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard or for more information, log on to the tournament web site, www.arnoldpalmerinvitational.com or call the Bay Hill Club ticket office at 407-876-7774 or toll free at 1-866-764-4843. Tournament proceeds benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.