PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Whomever came up with 72 holes is a genius. Three periods, 60 minutes, nine innings — 72 holes. Vijay Singh, trying to become the oldest winner ever on Tour, at age 56, was required to play 72 holes, just like every other player who played four rounds here at the Honda Classic. Not 54, not 63, not 70. Getting to the house, unscathed, is the hardest thing to do in golf. Singh and Tom Watson can compare notes on the subject when they dine together, Tuesday night of Masters week. Watson, you may remember, had a one-shot lead at the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. He didn’t win, either. Watson made a bogey on the last. Singh made a bogey on the first. Sam Snead still stands, as the oldest Tour winner ever, at 52 and 10 months.
Still, what Singh did over four days here is both incredible and inspiring. The Big Fijian (talk about a literal nickname) won his first big event, the Volvo Open in Italy, in 1989. And 30 years later, here he was, still at it, playing in the last group of the day, just as Watson did in that Open. Amazing. Singh’s Sunday playing partner, Wyndham Clark, is 25 years old. Singh shot a Sunday 70, starting the day where he finished, six under par. Clark shot 72. The first-time winner, Keith Mitchell, 27, shot nine under, one shot ahead of two Ryder Cuppers, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka.
But everybody was talking about Singh. Clark, playing in the last group for the first time, came out of the scorer’s room and talked about the exhibition in course management he had just witnessed, courtesy of a Hall of Famer. Clark will be reviewing this round likely forever. Fowler, who is 30, imagining life in 2045, said, “I’d love to be healthy and swinging and being able to compete with guys that are half my age.“ Twenty-six years can go fast.
The most astounding thing was Singh’s disposition through the day, but especially after the par-3 17th hole, when it was all over for him. He yanked an iron into the (must we?) penalty area, took a drop and made a bogey. And he came off the green smiling and chatting with Clark. Several minutes later came a moment that only golf could produce. Singh, in his 50s, Roger Maltbie of NBC, in his 60s, and longtime NBC spotter, Russ Steib, in his 70s, approaching the 18th green together. A trio of lifers if ever there was one. Well, Singh is playing with house money at this point. Singh, long divorced but close to his only child, a grown son, seems to be a contented man, and settling his longstanding deer-antler spray suit with the PGA Tour must have something to do with it. You’d love to know who had a better year last year, Justin Thomas, who collected $8.6 million in Tour earnings last year, or Singh, in his unspecified Tour payout.
When he was done, somebody asked Singh, “Can you believe it’s 2019 and you’re still doing this?” He won his first pro event in Malaysia in 1984. Singh laughed, and said, “I’m old.” He’s actually one of the most remarkable and little-known figures in the game. He speaks in riddles or not at all. On Sunday he said, “It’s always exciting, when you have something going on.” No doubting that. It’s easy to remember events he lost when he did not say a thing. Of course, you could also make the case that he won, here in South Florida. Solo sixth as a win — nice work, if you can get it.
Singh won his Masters in 2000 and Snead died a few weeks after the 2002 Masters. Singh remembers Snead as something he really wasn’t, “an old quiet man.” Mitchell, a son of Georgia, will be playing in his first Masters next month. He doesn’t remember Singh’s win there, as a little kid. He does remember when Singh passed Tiger Woods as the world’s top-ranked player in 2004.
“I was honestly disappointed,” Mitchell said. The new winner has a nice, straightforward manner. He was a Tiger fan. Who wasn’t? “But it’s amazing what the guy can do at his age. I’m standing there, holding the trophy, and my back is already hurting. That guy is 30 years older than me and he’s hitting more balls than I am. He’s a true testament to fitness, to health, to just being a true competitor.”
The sun was setting at this point. Hard to know where Singh was just then. Maybe on Florida’s Turnpike, on his way to Bay Hill and the next tournament of the rest of his life.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]