It was in the Tuesday twilight of Masters week, some 20 years ago. Most of the patrons had departed for the day, their stomachs filled with pimento, their wallets barren from merchandise sprees. But in spite of the ever-growing shadows at Augusta National, a small company remained. Because no matter how much time you spend at golf’s mecca, it’s never enough.
This was well before the club’s modern, expansive practice facility was built, back when players were confined to the 260-yard range or the short game area situated between Magnolia Lane and the par-3 course. I was at the latter that evening, blessed to have an intimate, unobstructed view of my favorite player—a player who was the favorite of many; still is—working in the fading light. It’s still vividly ingrained in my mind: from pitches to flops to sand shots, no matter the distance, each ball coming to rest within feet of the hole.
In my hands were a marker and a Masters flag, radiant in yellow and gleaming with signatures. The names were a who’s who of that period in the game, but it wouldn’t be complete without an autograph from him, and he was right there. Eventually, with his head down, he ventured in my direction. I remember shaking, in disbelief at my fortune and overwhelmed that this was actually happening.
Only it didn’t. He wasn’t heading towards me but through me, his thoughts lost in whatever things run through a player’s mind during Masters week. My presence startled him something fierce. Chalk it up to shock, a bad mood, or merely the judgement that I had the audacity to be where I was, he looked down at me with disregard and uttered, “What the…get out of my face,” and marched on to the clubhouse.
What significance sports hold varies from person to person, yet its weight is undeniable when you’re a kid. In truth, it probably means too much, each game viewed as life or death, when athletes are more than athletes. And in that moment, my world was wrecked. Even in recollection, I feel like I need a blanket and hot chocolate.
I can’t tell you how long I stared forward, trying my damnedest to regain my composure, but it was somewhere between five seconds and forever. However, with the utmost clarity, I can tell you what snapped me out of the trance.
Emerging from thin air was an arm that seemed as big as my body, and it wrapped around my shoulder like a tentacle. As I turned my head to the right to see this massive limb, a voice boomed from above: “Hi son. How are you doing?”
I gazed up to see a towering man, his glasses tucked underneath a Wilson visor and his shirt so drenched it appeared he had fallen into Ike’s Pond. And smiling. I’ll never forget that smile from Vijay Singh.
His arm still around my shoulder and a rope in between us, Singh guided me from the practice area to the side of the clubhouse. As we walked, he peppered me with question after question: “How was your day? Is this your first time here? What was your favorite hole?” He treated each answer with interest, as if I had unlocked Hogan’s secret. He told me how much he enjoyed Augusta National, and what a delight it would be if he could win the green jacket. “I don’t think I would ever take it off!” he laughed.
We finally reached the veranda, and Singh grabbed my flag and signed it. Before he left, he leaned down and said, “Thank you for coming.” He took a few more steps towards the clubhouse, looked back, and waved.
When I looked down, I noticed Singh had signed the back of the flag. The front was covered with a dozen names, among them four Hall of Famers. But for years, on a bulletin board hanging above a desk in my bedroom, those names were hidden, because Singh’s was the only one that mattered.
Two decades later, Singh—who eventually got that green jacket—is in the final group of the Honda Classic. With a victory, he’ll become the oldest winner in PGA Tour history at 56 years old. But if he pulls it off, it won’t be as celebrated as it should, because Singh evokes a past that continues to haunt in the present.
And that rap, that stigma…it’s probably fair. But as he attempts to do the unthinkable at PGA National on Sunday, know that Singh, and his story, are far more than that.