Ace of the greens
Golf has always been a game of statistics but Vijay Singh, 41 years and 11 months old, 1.88 metres tall and weighing in at 83 kg, is taking things to the extreme. The Fijianís recent victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii was his seventh success in his last 11 PGA events and his eighth consecutive top-10 finish.
Vijay Singh has continued his remarkable run despite a double caddie change
town, big names
Ace of the
has always been a game of statistics but Vijay Singh, 41 years and 11
months old, 1.88 metres tall and weighing in at 83 kg, is taking things
to the extreme.
The Fijianís recent victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii was his seventh success in his last 11 PGA events and his eighth consecutive top-10 finish.
It seems like only yesterday everyone was asking Ďwho can stop Tiger Woods?í yet Vijay has eclipsed him and is without doubt the worldís number one player.
Last year, he became the first player to earn more than $10 million in a season as he triumphed in nine events ó the best since Tiger Woods in 2000 and a tally previously beaten only by Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
His golden streak in August, September and October garnered him six titles and a tie for second in another while his 64 sub-70 rounds was the second best in PGA history after Steve Fleschís 66 in 2000.
He ended the year as world number one, displacing the previously untouchable Woods, and shows no sign of handing the honour back to the American.
Vijay opened 2005 with a tie for fifth in the Mercedes Championship, after leading at the end of the third round, then wasted little time in claiming his 25th career title and, most remarkably of all, his 13th since turning 40, with the Sony Open.
Three weeks into January, he has already passed the $ 1 million mark in earnings for the year ó the 10th successive year he has done so.
Vijay, renowned as one of the most dedicated professionals on the tour, has continued his remarkable run despite the disruption of a double caddie change.
Dave Renwick, his bag man throughout 2004 and for all three of his Major victories, declined to continue one of the most lucrative relationships in the game because he felt there was no longer any fun in it.
Vijay used friend and personal trainer Joey Diovisalvi as his caddie for the season-opening Mercedes and returned to former assistant Paul Tesori for the Sony "and beyond."
The changes did not bother him, just as Ernie Elsís charge through the ranks with a course record-equalling 62 left him unruffled.
"I prepared pretty well, itís a great way to start the year," said Vijay, who has dedicated just about his entire life to improving his golf game and allows nothing to distract him.
"It takes a lot of pressure off me, everyone saying Ďis he going to win again?í Itís a great relief."
Ominously for the rest of the golfing world, he added: "I can start breathing again and go and play more comfortably for the rest of the season." ó Reuters
Trapped in the bunker
Professional golf, like Hollywood, can be extremely lucrative for the big names. Just like the world of acting, it can also be a bitter struggle for those trying to make their mark lower down the pecking order.
While world number one Vijay Singh and his predecessor Tiger Woods earned more than $18 million in prize money between them last year, scores of players at the other end of the scale failed to break even.
Britainís Simon Wakefield, who has had to visit the European Tour qualifying school five times in the past eight years, knows all about the bruising battle at the bottom of golfís food chain.
"Itís very hard work and thereís a lot of pressure," the 30-year-old Englishman said. "The biggest problem starting out on the Challenge Tour (the breeding ground for the main European Tour) is the prize money available.
"The statistic we worked out a couple of years ago is that only the top four at the end of the season actually make any money at all.
"It costs all the others, certainly from around number seven or eight right down to the bottom guy on the order of merit. I think thatís a bit harsh for young guys coming out."
Anything between 25,000 ($ 47,150) and 35,000 pounds are needed to cover a playerís annual Challenge Tour expenses, according to Wakefield.
"Thatís flights, accommodation and living expenses, although it depends how many tournaments you play," he said. "Most guys generally don't take caddies and not many of them room on their own, they tend to twin up.
"I was lucky when I first played the Challenge Tour because I managed to get a sponsor," added the Briton, who is nephew to former England test cricketer and wicketkeeper Bob Taylor.
For now, though, the Challenge Tour is a thing of the past for Wakefield.
Although forced to return to tour school for a fifth time last November after finishing two places outside the automatic qualifiers in the season-ending European order of merit, he managed to retain his playing privileges.
"That was a big step for me as I felt I didnít deserve to be there in the first place (at tour school)," he said.
"I had only needed a further 2,000 pounds from my last three tournaments on the 2004 European Tour but missed the cut in all of them by a shot.
"It was so frustrating to be so close and yet so far away. But I was really pleased how well I played at the tour school under that extra pressure."
Wakefield finished second at the six-round qualifying tournament in Madrid, three strokes behind winner Peter Gustafsson of Sweden.
"These things are sent to make us stronger, and it certainly has because I donít want ever to go back to tour school again," he said. "Iíll work extra hard to make sure I donít."
Although Wakefield experienced additional pressure as he set out to secure his Tour card in Madrid, it was nothing compared to his British Open debut at Royal St Georgeís in 2003.
"That was probably the most pressure I've ever felt at a golf tournament, standing on the first tee with thousands of people around me," he said.
"It was my first Open championship and I was the last one to tee off, after (playing partners) Rolf Muntz and Gary Murphy.
"They both hit their opening shots straight down the middle and then I couldnít even get my ball on the tee I was shaking so much. Thankfully, I managed to hit my shot down the middle too.
After that, I settled quite quickly."
Wakefield, who turned professional in 1997, has clear-cut targets for this year.
"To retain my card, thatís my number one goal," he said. "As soon as Iíve done that, I want to make the top 60 to qualify for the Volvo Masters at the end of the year.
"Iíd also like to be in contention in more than one tournament this year," added the Englishman, who has twice tied for fifth in a European Tour event. "That feeling, when you experience it, is fantastic." ó Reuters
Small town, big names
Did a lucky star pass over Ornskoldsvik in 1973? Is there something in the water? Whatever the reason, two of the world's best ice hockey players were born that year in this small northern Swedish town.
Now Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund are back home from the North American National Hockey League (NHL), where play is on hold due to a wage dispute, looking to give something back to MoDo, the local club that fostered the two of them as well as around one-quarter of Swedenís recent NHL exports.
For a town of only 55,000 persons, producing so many top players is an unlikely feat ó one researcher put the statistical likelihood at less than one in two billion.
"A lot of it is just a quirk of fate, like with the generation of 1973," Peter Blomqvist, general manager of MoDo, said.
"But itís also about developing talent. If we find a player whoís a rough diamond we'll make sure to polish him."
Forsberg, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche, was NHL top scorer in the 2002-2003 season, shadowed by Vancouver Canucksí Naslund a mere two points behind.
The Swedish duo were named the league's most valuable players by hockey writers and peers.
This season Naslund waited for a possible solution to the conflict between NHL players and team owners before deciding in December to join his mother club MoDo in January. Forsberg has played for MoDo since the start of Swedenís 2004-2005 season.
In Ornskoldsvik, a coastal town some 540 km north of Stockholm, ice hockey is the only game that matters, the locals say.
There is a long tradition of playing the game and the success stories of its sons gone west ónot to mention their riches ó lure even more to play. ó Reuters
IN THE NEWS
World champion Sebastian Loeb of France was not expected to make many mistakes at the Monte Carlo rally in Monaco. He didnít make any to complete a hat-trick of wins.
Driving a Citroen Xsara, Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena of Monaco were at their consistent best during the three days of the season-opening rally.
The Frenchman beat Finlandís Toni Gardemeister, driving a Ford, into second place while Loebís Mitsubishi-driving compatriot Gilles Panizzi came third.
Well aware that it was a tricky event, Loeb never became complacent and employed flawless tactics to leave the others behind.
The spilling of snow onto the tarmac by fans, a Monte Carlo rally tradition, troubled several of his rivals. However, Loeb was much more wary of this hazard. He was well alerted by his Citroen team, which, to his disappointment, will bid farewell to world championship rallying at the end of the season.
The Frenchman built a good lead on the first two days, forcing his closest rivals to stretch themselves and take risks in an attempt to narrow it.
It would have been the fourth rally victory on the trot for Loeb, the winner in 2003 and 2004, had not he been disqualified for a technicality regarding changing of tyres in 2002. Nevertheless, he became the fourth driver to win the rally three times in succession since 1970, after Finn Tommi Makkinen, German Walter Rohrl and Italian Sandro Munari.
Next year, Loeb would have a go at equalling Rohrl and Munariís record of four Monte Carlo victories. If he finds a good team to back him up, the rally might prove to be yet another smooth ride for him.
Though she lost to former number one and six-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, teen sensation Sania Mirza has certainly won hearts and fans. Playing against Serena, Sania has fulfilled her dream. She used to watch her on TV and had a desire to play with her. Though she lost, she is a winner in terms of the experience she gained.
She made a graceful exit from the Australian Open. She competed so hard and gave a gallant fight. She matched Serena very well in the groundstrokes and it turned out to be a thrilling performance.
She put up a spirited display in the second set in which she proved that she could match top players. She seems to have learnt to play under pressure.
This performance will give her confidence to play better in the future. Serena Willians rightly said after the match that a bright future awaited Sania.