US Masters champion Vijay Singh renews a love affair with the country where he won his first international title when he tees up at the US$910,000 Carlsberg Malaysian Open at Saujana Golf and Country Club tomorrow.
The towering Fijian, speaking on Valentine’s Day, said he did not want to break the hearts of his fans here and intends to live up to his star billing, and also his name, which means "Victory" in Hindi. "I’ve come all the way here and I want to play well, and not disappoint myself and the people coming out to watch. I’ve had two and half rounds in practice at Saujana, so I feel like I know the course enough to do well," said Singh, ranked eighth in the world.
"It was good to start the year with a second and a third-place finish on the US Tour. I worked pretty hard during the off-season to get my game to where I feel like it would bring good things this year. I’m pretty excited about my game right now. I’m hitting the ball a lot straighter with my new driver and I’m putting really good. These are the two strong points that I was lacking last year. I feel in myself that I’m going to have a good year."
Singh won the 1984 Malaysian PGA Championship before hitting the big time in Europe and later the US. From the days where he pounded ball after ball at the range following stints as a club pro in East Malaysia, which forms part of Borneo, Singh is now one of the world’s golfing superstars after Major triumphs at the 1998 US PGA Championship and the Masters last year.
"It’s exciting to be back in Malaysia and I’m looking forward to this tournament. I had planned this trip a while ago and my wife (Ardena, who is a Malaysian) is also happy to be back as she hasn’t been here in six years," said Singh, who won the Malaysian Open in 1992.
The Carlsberg Malaysian Open is jointly sanctioned by the European and Asian PGA Davidoff Tours for the third successive year. It has attracted other world-class names that are tipped to challenge for this week’s top prize of US$151,660. American "Long" John Daly, looking lean and mean after shedding 52 pounds in recent months, is in love with the game again after a tumultuous last few seasons and may well contend at Saujana’s Palm Course, known better as the Cobra. Kiwi star Michael Campbell, winner of the European Tour-sanctioned Vines Classic in Perth two weeks ago, is another strong contender following six international victories, including a win over Tiger Woods, under his belt in the past 18 months.
"I don’t eat more than two meals a day and not after 6pm. I drink lots of water as well and the weight just seems to fall off," said Daly, who is down to 210 pounds from 262 pounds. "Mentally, I think I’m better than I have ever been. Game wise, I’m getting closer to where I was. I made some big numbers at Pebble Beach recently (on the front nine) but I acted like I was leading the tournament at the turn and I made six birdies. I’m just trying to hang in there when things go wrong.
"The greens can be tricky here if you miss them in some spots. The weather here is very humid but it’s sort of like Memphis in the summer – so I’m pretty used to it. I played the back nine this morning and the premier here is hitting the fairways," said Daly, winner of the 1991 US PGA Championship and 1995 British Open.
Campbell is planning to use advise from his Pro-Am partner and the former Malaysian king, Tuanku Ja’afar in his bid to tame the Cobra. "He was very informative. He has played with good players like Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller and Tiger Woods and passed on some of his knowledge to me. He told me which mounds to aim for and how to shape the shots. It was helpful information," he said.
Singh is using N. Suhendran, the son of the club pro at Saujana, as his caddie this week. "He’s played many times over here and I want him to see the greens the way he sees it, and not the way I want him to see it. I think we’ll make a good team," said Singh.
The strong Asian PGA field is aiming to complete a hat trick of victories over the European Tour. In the first co-sanctioned event two years ago, American Gerry Norquist, Asia’s adopted son and a regular winner on the Davidoff Tour, triumphed by three strokes at Saujana.
Twelve months ago, Taiwan’s Yeh Wei-tze produced a stunning victory at Templer Park to become only the third Asian winner on the European Tour after compatriot Lu Liang-huan and Isao Aoki of Japan. Yeh’s title defence was nearly derailed by a sore back, which flared up at last week’s Greg Norman International in Sydney. But the decision to withdraw from the second round ensured a speedy recovery.
"I picked up this injury from weight training and I felt a twinge in Sydney. Knowing that I would defend in Malaysia, I decided to pull out. I feel so much better now that I’m hoping to retain my title. There are a lot of top players in the field this year. But this is good as it allows us (Asian PGA players) to test our games and try to narrow the gap. There is pressure on me as the champion but all players must deal with pressure," said Yeh.
Other top Asians likely to feature prominently on the leaderboard include Korea’s Kang Wook-soon, who recently won an unprecedented seventh Davidoff Tour title, India’s Jyoti Randhawa, Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee, Filipino star Frankie Minoza and China’s number one Zhang Lian-wei. Thongchai and Kang will play alongside Singh for the first two rounds while Zhang will line-up against Daly.
Interestingly, the 2001 European Tour International Schedule has yet to produce a European winner after two events in South Africa and two in Australia.