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Kindred spirits: Singh and Snead

Vijay Singh in the 2012 Greenbrier Classic first round
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – At a resort where Sam Snead served as head professional for much of his adult life, it is equal parts appropriate and ironic that Vijay Singh leads The Greenbrier Classic through the opening round.

They are two men cut from the same cloth, separated by a few generations. Snead and Singh could each be described as curmudgeonly, men who never cared much about public image, instead eschewing social graces for hard work, forever digging secrets out of the dirt.

It should come as no coincidence that they are considered amongst the preeminent late-career performers in the history of the game. Snead owned the PGA Tour record for victories after the age of 40 with 17 – until Singh surpassed him in 2007, since adding four more to his total. How impressive are those numbers? No other player has more than 11.

Of course, when Singh eclipsed Snead at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship a half-decade ago, his take on owning the record was typical Vijay. Which is to say, it was a comment only Slammin’ Sam would have loved.

“I don't know what it means,” he said at the time. “If Sam Snead was out there and he played great all his career, for me to pass his record after 40, really, it does not mean much. There's no trophies for doing it, you know what I mean?”

The truth is, the 49-year-old Singh has never viewed his advancing age as any sort of disadvantage or deterrent. He remains the game’s ultimate range rat, unofficially leading the ranks in practice time year after year.

On Thursday, that practice was paying off once again.

Singh opened with a 7-under 63 at The Old White TPC Course, claiming the early lead on a track where Snead’s memory lingers on, both physically in photos and other mementos and metaphysically, his image remaining an intangible presence on the premises.

After posting a birdie on the first hole, Singh bogeyed his fourth, then birdied the seventh to make the turn in 1 under. He heated up in the sticky West Virginia humidity on the back, though, making birdies on six of his final eight holes, including each of the last four.

Never one who seems very startled to shoot a good score, Vijay was perhaps uncharacteristically pleased and surprised with himself after the round.

“Gosh, I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I’ve been playing pretty good golf for a while, but just never got any scoring going. But today seemed I hit it close and drove the ball really well, hit a lot of greens and made some putts.”

That comes as a byproduct of recent play. In 17 starts this season, he has made the cut on 13 occasions, but the former top-10 machine has elicited just one such result so far. Last week’s AT&T National was emblematic of his issues, as his scores ascended from Thursday through Sunday, culminating in a frightful 10-over 81 on the final day.

It was enough to leave him pleasantly surprised after besting that number by 18 strokes in his next competitive round.

“You know, it’s my first good round of the year, I would say, that I felt really comfortable” he explained. “It’s a good way to start a tournament.”

Playing a ninth event in 10 weeks would leave most near-50-year-olds – he’ll hit the half-century mark next February – with undesirable aches and pains, not to mention a dose of lethargy that could be lethal to the golf game.

Of course, Singh isn’t most near-50-year-olds.

“I don’t feel tired; I feel really energized,” he said. “I’ve been working really hard on my game, so it’s nice to see something happen.”

If Snead were still around, he wouldn’t gush over Singh’s play nor would he resort to hyperbole in an effort to explain the leader’s feat so far.

Instead, the man who made a living at this course likely would have offered a tip of his hat and limited praise. All of which would suit Singh just fine. That’s just his style, too.