Jeev Milkha Singh: Packed & Loaded

Jeev Milkha Singh: Packed & Loaded

Singh, a two-time winner last year on the European tour, is the first Indian to play in the Masters and the first to qualify for the European tour (1998).
Darren Carroll

Jeev Milkha Singh puts down his glass of Cabernet, leans back in his chair and lets out a long, bellowing yawn. “Man, I’m jet-lagged,” he says, his bloodshot eyes scanning this French-fusion restaurant on the outskirts of Tucson. “I’m really feeling it.”

Little wonder. It is the week of the Accenture Match Play Championship, and Singh arrived two days ago from his native India, a 24-hour odyssey of connecting flights from Delhi to Frankfurt to Chicago to Denver to Tucson. Then again, Singh’s jet lag is a decade in the making. He has long been golf’s most frequent flier, powering through a maniacal travel schedule that has taken him to every corner of the golf world. At various points in his career Singh has held cards on the European, Japanese, Asian and Nationwide tours, often playing more than one tour in the same season. In 2006 the quality of Singh’s golf finally caught up to the quantity, as he produced one of the more remarkable years in the annals of the sport, playing 39 tournaments in 17 countries on four continents, along the way racking up 20 top 10 finishes, including two victories in Japan, one in China and the biggest win of his career at the European tour’s prestigious season-ending Volvo Masters, in Sotogrande, Spain. The Volvo Masters and the double dip in Japan came during a blazing stretch last fall during which Singh established himself as the hottest golfer in the world. (Tiger Woods was merely the hottest golfer in North America.) “There were times when I awakened in a hotel room at two in the morning and had no idea what country I was in,” says Singh, a 35-year-old bachelor.

“I was so zonked out and confused-not a nice feeling-but I was playing so well, I felt I couldn’t take a week off.”

You can’t blame the guy for trying to cram a whole career into a year. His victory last April at the China Open ended a seven-year winless drought marked by injuries and crushing self-doubt. Now, after so many years of road-tripping, Singh has arrived at the ultimate destination: Next week he will become the first Indian to compete in the Masters. (Vijay Singh, no relation, can trace his roots to the subcontinent, but he is a Fijian national.)

To a kid growing up in Chandigarh, a relatively prosperous city in northern India, Augusta National was a distant wonderland glimpsed only on a flickering TV screen. Every year a member at Chandigarh Country Club with relatives in the U.S. would pass around videotapes of the Masters, with strict orders to return the tapes within two days. Singh remembers staying up late into the night, transfixed by the beauty of Augusta National. “I grew up on a course with literally no grass,” he says. “Not a single blade. It was just dirt. So Augusta totally blew my mind. Even as a kid on the putting green, I would say, ‘This is to win the Masters.’ Everyone would say, ‘You’re crazy. Indians don’t play in the Masters.’ It seemed impossible, but here I am.”

That Singh could conceive of competing on a world stage is surely due to the exploits of his father, Milkha Singh, who in the late 1950s and early ’60s was one of India’s preeminent athletes. Known as the Flying Sikh, Milkha cut an unforgettable figure with his long hair and full beard. In ’58 he set records in the 200 and 400 meters at the Asian Games and followed that performance with a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. He was a favorite in the 400 at the ’60 Olympics in Rome, and he set a blistering pace over the first 200 to take the lead. In an agonizing fade that is still replayed in India, Singh was passed by three runners in the home stretch. The disappointment turned Milkha into a beloved tragic hero and, says Jeev, “to this day, everywhere my dad goes people shout out his name.”

Milkha, who became an administrator of public sports programs, tried to dissuade his son from pursuing a career in athletics. “You know how Indian parents are, they all want their sons to be doctors or engineers,” says Jeev with a laugh, but he had a natural athleticism that couldn’t be denied.

“Growing up we played cricket, football [soccer], badminton, field hockey, you name it, and he always dominated,” says boyhood friend Amrintinder Singh, no relation. (Singh is the Indian equivalent of Smith.)

At 12 Jeev began focusing on golf, an unlikely choice. “Back then golf was virtually unknown in India,” says Daniel Chopra, the half-Indian, half-Swedish PGA Tour veteran who grew up in Delhi and regularly competed against Jeev in junior events. “A couple of times a year I would fly to Singapore just to buy golf balls. They were like diamonds. Jeev’s father was famous, but they weren’t rich, and he had to struggle like the rest of us.”

Jeev Singh is self-taught and learned to play with only five clubs, for which he is thankful. “You have only a nine-iron and a five-iron, you learn to invent shots,” he says. Even as a kid he became known for a punishing work ethic. “My dad always said, ‘Hard work and discipline is what it takes to succeed,'” he recalls. “I’ve heard that a million times, maybe more.”

By his middle teens Singh, competing as an amateur, was routinely beating pros in small Indian tournaments, and far-flung travel in the summer brought him to the attention of Vince Jarrett, then the coach at Abilene Christian. (Jarrett now coaches at the University of Houston.) Singh accepted a scholarship and packed up for Texas, where he immersed himself in local customs, barbecue included. “My parents, my sisters, they refuse to eat beef,” says Singh, who’s Sikh, but follows the cultural norms of his countrymen. “When I’m in India, I don’t either, but when you’re away from home, you must adapt.”

In 1993, as a sophomore, Singh led the Wildcats to the Division II national championship while also winning individual honors, and shortly thereafter he turned pro. He reached the Asian tour in ’95, winning twice and finishing third on the money list. In ’98 he decided to test himself against tougher competition, becoming the first Indian to play the European tour, just as he had been the first Indian to play college golf in America. “With Jeev, he always gave us the feeling we could move onward and upward,” says Chopra.

To help himself feel grounded on the road, Jeev begins every morning with 30 minutes of yoga, during which he puts himself into a meditative state. He follows with a long workout. Through the years he has earned the reputation as a lone wolf, but that’s largely because he prefers to spend his evenings in the company of old friends: the dozens of DVDs he brings on every trip, plucked from a collection of more than 1,000. After his nightly movie he ends his day by reading from a dog-eared copy of Joseph Murphy’s bestselling The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. Says Chopra, “He’s a very private person, very set in his ways. He’s all about routine.”

Singh’s well-ordered world was turned upside down with one swing, on the 17th hole of the second round at the 2000 Johnnie Walker Classic. His ball was hard against the lip of a bunker, and in trying to slash it out, he shredded the ligaments in his right wrist. “I still saved par,” Singh says proudly, and he soldiered on for two more months, the wrist hurting more and more with every swing. Finally a doctor insisted that he wear a cast for 12 weeks. The ligaments healed, but Singh’s psyche had been badly damaged.

When he returned to action, he was afraid to turn the club over at impact. This begat a case of the driver yips, forcing Singh to tee off with his three-wood, a huge disadvantage for a player who was not a big hitter to begin with.

Singh survived with a fabulous short game-he holds the European tour record for fewest putts over four rounds, having taken only 94 at the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic-but he began tweaking his swing to accommodate his lack of confidence in his wrist. The result is among the most unorthodox swings in pro golf: a halting shoulder turn, the club laid off at the top and a downswing that is a pronounced outside-in swipe.

In the years after the wrist injury Singh had a series of setbacks. He had always been intrigued with the idea of playing in the U.S., and at the 2002 PGA Tour Q school he was in great shape to get his card through five rounds. But Singh unraveled on the final day, shooting 77 when even par would have landed him on the Tour. (He settled for the Nationwide in ’03, playing 11 tournaments, making six cuts and earning $24,628.)

“Man, I’m telling you, there have been so many lows,” he says. “I wanted to quit so many times. So many times in the past I felt fear on the course, but it is best not to talk about such things.”

Beginning in 2004 Singh made the Japanese tour his home base. At the ’05 Okinawa Open he took a four-shot lead into the final round but again came undone on Sunday, shooting a 73 and bogeying the last to finish a shot behind Kiyoshi Miyazato.

“That was the key moment for me,” Singh says. “That night I was so upset, I resolved to completely change my approach. I had become obsessed with the results and was not paying enough attention to the process of playing good golf. As soon as I stopped caring about the results, that’s when everything changed. Only by letting it all go has it come back to me.”

Singh’s new equanimity was tested at last year’s China Open, when he was a shot off the lead through three rounds. “I tried reverse psychology on Sunday,” he says. “I told myself, You are not going to win. This is another tournament you have given away.'”

A bogey on the 1st hole made him more relaxed. A burst of birdies followed, and he was flawless down the stretch, pulling out an emotional one-stroke victory, his first since the 1999 Lexus International. “That win changed everything for me,” Singh says. “My technique hasn’t changed in years. The difference is that now I have the belief. In this game, belief is everything.”

He rode that confidence for the rest of the year. When Singh finally ran out of tournaments, he had risen to 37th in the World Ranking, from 367th a year earlier. He had topped the Asian tour Order of Merit, finished third on the Japanese money list and 16th in Europe, and had banked more than $2.7 million.

for all of Singh’s success, in the U.S. he remains a mystery to all but the most sleepless Golf Channel viewers. This year’s majors will be Jeev’s chance to make a name for himself, and he hopes to emulate the success of another gritty ball-control player with a homemade swing. Says Chopra, “The best way to describe Jeev is as an Indian Jim Furyk. It can be very uncomfortable to look at [Singh’s] swing, but Jeev is the most mentally strong player I’ve ever been around.”

Singh is hoping to maximize his time in America, playing the majors, the World Golf Championships (in the Match Play he lost 3 and 2 in the first round to Stewart Cink) and any other tournaments that will have him. Last year’s success earned Singh a five-year exemption in Europe and Asia, and three years in Japan. “Now I can have a free go at the U.S.,” he says.

Singh owns a home in Chandigarh but last year didn’t see it from March to December, spending every night in between in a hotel. Yet Singh’s wanderlust is finally beginning to cool; he is eyeing a piece of property on the Monterey Peninsula and would love to build a house there to serve as his U.S. base. He also has a serious girlfriend, Kudrat Brar, a former human-resources manager; they grew up on the same street and, after having fallen out of touch, fell in love a few years ago. “Jeev’s parents are dying for him to get married, but he has always put them off by saying he wouldn’t settle down until he made it to the U.S. tour,” says Amrintinder Singh. “So now I kid him that as good as he’s playing, he better start preparing for the wedding.”

Even if Singh starts planting roots, his influence will still be felt. A handful of Indian touring pros have begun asserting themselves. On the Asian tour the Indians are collectively known as the Curry Cartel, and “I like to say we’re spicy, too,” says Singh, laughing. Arjun Atwal and Jyoti Ranhawa have each topped the Asian tour money list in the last four years, and in 2005 Shiv Kapur was the tour’s rookie of the year. Atwal and Chopra are regulars in America, and Kapur is playing in Europe.
“I know my success is encouraging other Indians to try golf,” says Singh, who last year was awarded the Padma Shri-the Indian equivalent of being knighted-48 years after his father earned the same honor. “It is convincing parents that golf can be a way a of life. I’m very proud of that.”

Last year Singh played in the Pakistan Open, a particularly freighted appearance given that his paternal grandparents were butchered in the 1947 partition riots. “No one in my family had ever set foot in Pakistan,” says Singh. “There was a lot of fear and apprehension about me going.” He went and finished second. Along the way the boisterous crowds embraced him. “What I have learned through the years of traveling is that you can’t be afraid to try anything,” says Singh. “Golf can give you many wonderful new experiences, if you are open to them.”