AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The last leg of Vijay Singh's improbable journey was an uphill climb to the 18th green at Augusta National. That was the easy part.
The Fiji native had toiled in the jungle, pounding balls in stifling heat and wondering where it all might lead. He found out Sunday when he slipped the green jacket over his broad shoulders.
''It was a struggle, but it was a peaceful struggle,'' Singh said after winning the Masters. ''I would never swap that for now.''
Singh beat back the biggest stars in golf to claim its most prestigious prize. He stared down a challenge from David Duval, ignored an early charge by Tiger Woods, and calmly held off Ernie Els at the end. His 3-under 69 gave him a three-stroke victory and his second major championship.
Singh rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole, kissed the ball as he removed it from the cup and embraced his family. His 9-year-old son, Qass, had taped a message to his bag that said, ''Papa, Trust Your Swing!''
He did, following those direction career victory.
Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, couldn't get a birdie putt to fall on the last three holes and was at 281.
The biggest threat came from Duval, in contention on the back nine Sunday at Augusta for the third straight year. His dreams died with a risky shot that wound up in Rae's Creek for a bogey on the par-5 13th, the easiest hole at Augusta.
Duval had a 70 and finished third along with Loren Roberts.
Woods, trying to pull off the greatest 36-hole comeback in Masters history, got within three of the lead but played even-par on the back and finished fifth, six strokes back.
''I was so focused on what I was doing,'' Singh said. ''It meant a lot.''
And it showed when last year's winner, Jose Maria Olazabal, helped him slip into the coveted green jacket.
''It feels great,'' a beaming Singh said.
Singh played tours on five continents and was banned from two of them, one because of allegations that he doctored his scorecard to miss the cut. He has long denied the charge, but it has haunted him throughout his career.
He took a job as a teaching pro in Borneo, living in a one-bedroom apartment as he slowly worked his way back toward the only career he ever wanted.
''I don't think anyone should be surprised that Vijay Singh won this golf tournament,'' Duval said. ''He's a wonderful player.''
He proved it on the back nine at Augusta, where so many Masters are decided. For Singh, Sunday morning was just as critical as Sunday afternoon.
With frost melting into dew, he returned to the course to complete his third round and made two critical par putts that enabled him to maintain his three-stroke cushion over Duval.
That paid dividends later in the day, when Singh managed to escape danger twice without losing his lead.
Clinging to a two-stroke lead over Duval, Singh hit his approach into the pond left of the 11th green. He was able to drop close to the green, hit a delicate chip to 4 feet and dropped only one shot by making the putt.
Then on the par-3 12th, he hit over the green into the most daunting bunker at Augusta. Faced with a shot that sloped down the green toward more trouble, he blasted out to 2 feet -- the same shot Olazabal pulled off to win last year.
Duval, who lives near Singh in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was still poised to win his first major championship until a mistake on the 13th.
''I played perfectly well enough to win the golf tournament,'' Duval said, but, ''the day did not turn out like I wanted.''
Ditto for Els, the 30-year-old South African who got word Saturday that his buddy had won a $2 million lottery and thought it might be a good omen.
''I felt like I was going to win the tournament when I stepped on the first tee,'' Els said. ''I was really trying to push too hard.''
Woods, an overwhelming favorite at the start of the week, wound up missing key shots on the par 5s. He still needs five more green jackets to catch Jack Nicklaus.
''I knew going into this week that every time I play, this game is very fickle,'' Woods said. ''Even though I didn't get off to a good start Thursday, I gave myself a chance. I got back into the tournament and had a chance on Sunday.''
Woods, who opened with a 75 and was nine strokes back after two days, got the deficit down to three strokes early and seemed poised to pounce.
Singh was in the fairway, waiting for the group ahead to tee off on No. 4, when he glanced up at the large white leaderboard in time to see another birdie posted for Woods. Singh proceeded to hit long and three-putt from 50 feet off the fringe.
Woods went out in 33. He was 4 under for the tournament and slowly gaining momentum for the kind of back-nine charge that have become so famous at Augusta.
But Singh's biggest threat was Duval. He made a couple of 8-foot putts early to close a three-stroke deficit to one, then really began to apply the pressure with birdie putts from 12 feet on No. 6, a good pitch to 2 feet on the par-5 eighth, and a sliding 6-footer on No. 9.
What did that get him? Nothing.
Singh matched every birdie and answered every great approach by Duval with one of his own -- and took that slim lead to the back nine.
Woods ran out of chances.
There were too few fist pumps and too many sighs, none louder than when his 4-foot birdie putt on the par-5 13th turned away. Only two Masters champions since 1992 have failed to birdie the hole, and it was the first time all week that Woods had to settle for par.
It could have worse.
Duval was exactly where he had planned on being for the past seven months. That's when he started pounding his body into shape with heavy lifting, lots of running and a disciplined diet. All he wanted was a chance on the back nine of Augusta come Sunday, and here he was.
With one bad decision, and a bad swing to match, there he went.
Singh never gave him or anyone else a chance. Despite a three-putt bogey on the 16th, he was always in the fairway, always on the green.
Now, a man who once toiled in the most remote places on earth joins an exclusive club that includes the greatest players in the game.
Quite a journey.
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