Singh's season could be best ever

PALM HARBOR, Fla -- The questions started coming around the time he dismantled Tiger Woods on Labor Day and have grown louder every week, culminating in his startling ninth win of the season on Sunday: Where does Vijay Singh's season rank among the best in PGA Tour history?

Singh won the Chrysler Championship on Sunday, a five-stroke victory over Jesper Parnevik and Tommy Armour III that almost looked easy. Singh birdied the first hole and never had less than a two-stroke lead the rest of the day.

If he wins the Tour Championship, he would become the first player since Sam Snead in 1950 to win as many as 10 times in a season.

"He's playing as good as anybody we have ever seen play the game. It's awesome," said Rocco Mediate, a friend of Singh's and former neighbor in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "This is right where he wanted to be. He sacrificed everything to be in this position. That's why he hits balls for 10 hours a day. I've known him since he moved there, and he does this every single day. The guy is absolutely remarkable."

Singh's feat might not be getting the attention it deserves due to those of Tiger Woods, who won eight events in 1999 and followed with nine wins in 2000. Woods also won three major titles in 2000 and his accomplishments tend to dull the feats of those who follow.

But Singh's nine-victory season is just the seventh in tour history and second since Sam Snead won 11 in 1950. If he had finished with eight victories, it would have been just the sixth time since 1960, when Arnold Palmer won eight times (he did so again in 1962). Johnny Miller, in 1974, was the only other player to win so many times until Woods came along.

And how about this for perspective? Neither Jack Nicklaus nor Tom Watson ever won eight times in a single season, let alone nine.

"I never knew that until you told me," Singh said. "I never thought I was going to win this many events. It is happening and I'm enjoying it. Just to be even mentioned near those guys. ... I mean, it's really unbelievable."

So is Singh's story, which once saw him caddying for $1 a day at Nadi Airport Golf Club in his native Fiji, where at age 16 he dropped out of school to pursue a game that seemingly only the rich could play.

Now he has surpassed $10-million this season.

"I tell my wife, you look back, and I almost had no money," Singh said. "Now I have made $10 million in one season. You just kind of laugh about it in a positive way."

All the way to the bank.

But it took time. One of six children, Singh left Fiji in 1982 to play professional golf and ran into difficulty on the Indonesian Tour. He took a job as club pro in Borneo, where he gave lessons to nearby oil workers, and killed his enormous free time by hitting ball after ball in the rain forest.

By 1988, he had won the Nigerian Open and Swedish PGA and the following year ventured to Europe where, before he hit it big, he once took a second job as a bouncer at a night club in Scotland.

Singh won several titles around the world before coming to the United States and playing the PGA Tour as a rookie in 1993. He was 30 years old. Since then, he has won 24 times, which is more than any other active player under the age of 50 except for Woods, who has 40. His 12 victories since turning 40 last year are second to only the legendary Snead, who won 17.

"What I see of Vijay is he works about as hard as anyone I have seen in a long time," said Palmer, 75. ""I certainly think that's where the whole thing comes from. His hard work and his effort. You've got to give some consideration to the fact that he's a little older than when most of us did the same thing. That is probably the most notable thing about it."

Never satisfied, Singh doesn't just haphazardly pound balls. He often puts a water bottle on the ground for alignment, a broken shaft in the ground behind him to guide his swing plane, a head cover under his left armpit to stay connected. And then there are the divots, seemingly dug from here to China. By the end of a practice session, Singh has left rows of them.

Because Woods won three majors in 2000 -- nobody had ever won more than two in the same season -- his year will be tough to beat, even if Singh does go on to win 10 times.

But Singh has some other impressive feats. In addition to his playoff victory at the PGA, he beat fan favorite John Daly at the Buick Open, held off Woods at the Deutsche Bank Championship to unseat Tiger as the No. 1 player in the world. And then he beat Mike Weir in a playoff at the Canadian Open, where a partisan crowd cheered every step for their native son.

Is it as impressive as Woods' nine-victory, three-major season of four years ago? Probably not, but it might be a close second. Snead's 1950 season included no major titles.

Byron Nelson won 18 times in 1945, Ben Hogan followed with 13 victories in 1948 and 10 in 1948 and did win two majors in the latter year. But given the competition today, the depth of fields, you could easily make a strong argument for Singh's '04 season being the best ever.

Attaining the No. 1 ranking was especially meaningful to Singh, who put himself in position to do so last year when he won the PGA Tour money title for the first time and captured four tournaments. Woods, who has just one victory this year, provided the opening.

"When I achieved it I got a great response from my peers," Singh said. "Everywhere I went, they just looked up at me and congratulated me, and that was really something that was special. And that got to me."

But don't expect it to turn Vijay into a softie for long.

"I'm sure this will motivate Tiger," Mediate said. "But if Vijay keeps playing like this, it's going to take a long time to take (the No. 1 ranking) away from him. He's not done yet."

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.