Vijay Singh knew from a very early age that he wanted to be a professional golfer. But growing up in Fiji with five siblings and his parents in a cramped little house, the world of professional golf must have seemed like a very unlikely prospect. Unlikely, that is, if you were not Vijay Singh.
As a boy, Singh loved the game so much that he would sometimes make his way through various drainage pipes that ran beneath the runways of the Nadi Airport to reach the golf course. The pipes were completely dark, and the lanky Singh had to crouch down simply to fit. The putrid water drained sewage to the ocean, and it would normally run higher than his ankles. Singh was so committed to his plan that he would drop out of school by the time he was sixteen in order to pursue his dream.
Vijay Singh was blessed with a gift and a conviction'and these would be the ticket to his dreams. His gift was his ability to play with peace. Part of this gift was just his natural disposition. He had the ability to stand over a putt that might mean the difference between playing on the weekend or going home, and he would not be overcome with crushing anxiety. Vijay has long been a student of Eastern philosophy, and he has mastered the ability to control his breathing, and, as a result, his temperament in high-stress situations. Singh was also convinced from very early in his life that nothing can beat unrelenting hard work and practice. He has worn this philosophy like a shield for his entire professional career. Singh has said that the reason he has become successful is that he has always had a disposition to do whatever it takes.
Like Singh, Charlie Sifford had to wade through plenty of filth to play golf, but the indignity he endured poured from the hearts and minds of ignorant people. Today Charlie Sifford, now in his eighties, seems relaxed and unassuming, yet his pleasant demeanor belies the trials he had to endure to realize his dream of playing professional golf against the best in the world.
Sifford is an African American, and during his prime years of playing golf, black golfers were banned from playing on the PGA Tour. Sifford would sharpen his game wherever he could. He won the National Negro Open five times straight from 1952 to 1956. Sifford has said he believed that if he kept working on his game, eventually the doors of opportunity would crack open.
Sifford made history in 1961 when he became the first African American allowed to compete on the PGA Tour. By that time, Sifford was forty-one years old, and his best playing days were behind him. Much like Jackie Robinson, Sifford was well aware of the significance of the path he was blazing. Whats more, simply making it to the big dance was not the end of his struggles. Sifford endured insults, threats, and indignities virtually everywhere he played. An example was the time he was barred from eating with the other players in the mens grill room at a country club in Florida. Sifford was forced to eat in the caddie yard. Many of the other players knew that Siffords treatment was wrong, and Ken Venturi led a group of players out to the caddie yard to dine with their friend.
That Sifford could remain focused and committed to his plan to become a professional golfer is an incredible testament to his fortitude. Sifford would go on to win the 1967 Hartford Open and the 1969 L.A. Open. He won the latter in a play-off over Harold Henning at nearly fifty years old.
It is commonplace that great golfers are measured by the number of major tournaments they have won. But Charlie Siffords victory over racial injustice could be the greatest success story the game has ever known.
Esteban Toledo also had to overcome great odds to make it as a professional golfer along a path that was marked by extreme poverty, death, and a fighting spirit.
Toledo was born in Mexicali, Mexico as the youngest of eleven children. The family lived in a choza, the Mexican word for a hut. Actually, hut as a description of his familys living conditions probably paints too nice a picture. The reality of their existence in the barrio was near destitution. Their tiny house had no plumbing, and their roof leaked like a river during even the smallest amount of rain, probably due to the fact that their roof was little more than cardboard. His family was forced to find space for all of them to sleep on two small beds.
Life was hard on Toledo and his family. When he was a small boy his older brother was found dead in a river, probably murdered. The thought that by 1994 Toledo would be playing on the PGA Tour was inconceivable.
But Toledo was a fighter, literally. Searching for a way to break out of gripping poverty, Toledo turned his hopes toward becoming a boxer. He fought with a ferocity that allowed him to amass a 12'1 professional record. His boxing took him to Tijuana, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. He was once paid $5,000 for a fight in Las Vegas. Toledo thought boxing would be his ticket to freedom, but reality once again put him down for the count.
An infection set in after appendicitis surgery and his boxing days were done. So it was back to the barrio for Toledo. He landed a job at a dusty golf course on the border'the same course where as a kid he used to sell golf balls he found back to the golfers for three for a dollar. Now he was cleaning clubs, shining shoes, doing whatever the boss told him to do. In the small slivers of time when he was not working, he would swing a golf club until the boss told him to stop.
One day, Toledo met Jon Minnis. Minnis was from California, but he might as well have been from heaven. Minnis was kindhearted, and he saw potential in Toledo. Minnis took Toledo under his wing and brought him back to California, away from the oppression of the barrio. Minnis found him a place to live and helped him to become a golfer, nurturing Toledos natural athleticism into a highly proficient yet simple swing. Toledo calls Minnis his father for the kindness and mentoring he has provided.
To this day, Toledos boxing instincts continue to serve him on the golf course. Toledo believes that boxing teaches you patience under pressure'the pressure of someone trying to knock you out. Toledo learned that the game of golf is like boxing in that you have to wait for your chances. You need to be patient until opportunity presents itself, but while you are waiting you need to work and be prepared. Clearly, Toledo knows the value of hard work and preparation, and he has been smart enough to turn opportunity into success.
The varied paths of Singh, Sifford, and Toledo prove that with conviction and tenacity a dream can be turned into reality.
Copyright 2006 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a reporter for The Golf Channel, equipment expert, twenty-year veteran of the golf industry and speaker. In addition, he is a New York Times and USAToday bestselling coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of Fairways of Life, Wisdom and Inspiration from the Greatest Game. Fairways of Life uses golf as a metaphor for life and features a Foreword by Arnold Palmer. To sign up for Adams Golf Wisdom email quotes or for more information, go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.