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Defending PGA Champ Vijay Singh Is Tour’s Most Misunderstood Player
SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — The news spread quickly from the third green at Pinehurst No. 2. Vijay Singh had just double-bogeyed the hole — another three- putt disaster during a tough weekend — to drop off the leader board at the U.S. Open last June.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” said Brett Barker, a recent college graduate from nearby Raleigh, N.C., his voice oozing with sarcasm. “He is such a nice guy. Hate to see that!”
His friends laughed and nodded in agreement, until somebody interrupted with a question: Why?
Why would they celebrate the struggles of the No. 2 player in the world and a three-time major champion? Why were they so happy to see Vijay Singh fail?
“He’s just a jerk to everyone,” Barker answered. “You can’t talk to him. You can’t approach him. I saw him blow off a local radio guy after his practice round. He’s just not a nice guy.”
When you hear his incredible story, when you watch him helping other golfers, when you watch him strike the golf ball better than almost everyone who has walked on this planet, this is what you think: People should like this guy. That Vijay Singh would not only be one of the best golfers ever, but one of the most beloved, too.
This is a sport in which the majority of players have followed the same blueprint to riches. Their fathers brought them to the country club when they were 5. They took lessons from only the best club pros. They had every advantage, caught every break.
Then, there is Singh, with his fascinating tale about climbing over a fence and darting across an airport runway to play the only course in his native Fiji, about leaving that island as a young man and playing in dozens of countries from Asia to Africa while chasing greatness, and finally finding it in his mid 30s.
He is more everyman than Phil Mickelson, nearly as dominant as Tiger Woods and a better citizen than John Daly. And yet, if you follow him this week at Baltusrol, watch him defend his title at the PGA Championship, you will discover that Singh is one of the least understood players — and one of the least-liked among the stars.
“He doesn’t have that baby- faced, Phil (Mickelson), oh-man- I-stepped-on-my-toe-and-got- away-with-it thing,” said Joey Sindelar, one of his friends on the tour. “Tiger has the viciousness and the charm. Vijay is just military. He’s just precision.
“But when he’s good, it’s scary. In my opinion, he’s awesome — just awesome.”
Still, it is Mickelson who hears his name yelled a thousand times per round. Daly draws the rowdy, you-the-man-yelling crowd. And Tiger? People follow him like a rock star.
It is different with Singh. As defending champion and a tournament favorite, it will be interesting to see how the galleries at Baltusrol respond. He has been gracious with autographs and seemed at ease with fans during his practice rounds. But, as always, his reputation follows him.
“He has always had a very serious, almost intimidating way about him, and maybe it’s hard for some people to relate to that,” said Jim Furyk, one of his closest friends on the PGA Tour. “He’s not always got a smile on his face and he’s not always joking around. It doesn’t make him a bad person.”
The fans gripe that he does not spend enough time signing autographs or mugging it up for photos. The media bellyache that he is impolite with their interview requests, and when he does speak, his comments often anger people — from course officials to rival players and even women’s rights advocates.
Singh, 42, was asked yesterday why the public was hesitant to embrace him. He pointed to the media.
“I don’t know what I needed to do to win you guys,” he said. “I’m not going to beg. I’m not the guy to go down there and get on my knees and say, ‘Hey, write good things about me.’ I’m not going to do that.
“I haven’t done anything not to win your confidence. I’m a player. I’m an athlete. I go out there and play tournaments and speak my mind out and I’m very honest about it.
“I’m not a fake like many guys out there.”
Giving interviews is not his strength, nor is it how he prefers to spend his time. He agreed to a series of short, one-on-one interviews with local media outlets after a press conference near Baltusrol in June. He grew less patient with each one. His limousine was waiting outside the hotel lobby. He was eager to leave, to get back home, to start practice again.
An offer to reschedule an interview, however, was met with a shake of his head.
“There will be no other time,” he said bluntly.
Woods and Mickelson are the perfect politicians, always polished and never controversial. Singh is the opposite. Ask a question, expect an honest answer — even a politically incorrect one.
He made headlines in the Scottish tabloids when he blasted the setup at St. Andrews before the British Open. He raised eyebrows when his caddie wore “Tiger Who?” stitched on the back of his cap during Presidents Cup matches in 2000. He yelled “Kiss my (rear)!” after winning the 2000 Masters, a comment he said was misunderstood. He griped about slow play at the Barclays Classic in Harrison, N.Y., in June. He angered Mickelson at the Masters when he questioned the scuff marks the popular player was making on the greens with his elongated spikes.
Then, there is the big one. When Annika Sorenstam played in the Colonial in 2003, Singh told reporters, “I hope she misses the cut … because she doesn’t belong out here.”
Asked about the controversy, Singh just shrugged. “I don’t think I ever said anything that is out of the ordinary,” he said. “That’s the way I speak. I don’t see why I should change.”
But those words created a firestorm that followed him for months. Golf Digest wrote that Singh had become “pro golf’s bad guy.” Others were even less kind. He was called a “sexist oaf,” a “big, whiny, whimpering baby” and “Vijay the Villain.”
“Look, he said some things that have gotten him in trouble. We all know that,” Sindelar said. “What I sense is, some guys are gifted with gab, some guys do the media thing really well. Vijay is a reasonably shy guy, but his dominance has forced him into speaking, and I don’t think it’s what he does best.
“In many cases, I’m not even sure what he’s been murdered for is way out of whack. How can you complain if he doesn’t say something, and when he does say something, rip him?”
HOME ON THE RANGE
His friends, some of whom blame the media for baiting him into the comments, say the controversy prompted Singh to become even more cautious and less trusting.
They see this as the public’s loss. Because when Singh does sit down to talk about his life, he can tell some fascinating stories.
His father was a refueler at Nadi Airport in Fiji. His family, because they were of Indian descent, were subject to extreme discrimination as he grew up.
“It was a normal upbringing in Fiji. It was a struggle, but it was a way of life,” Singh said. “The later part of my career, when I turned pro and traveled the world, not doing as good as I’m doing now, that was what really shaped my life. It was a good experience, an educational one.”
That journey began in Australia, where he won his first tournament in 1984, and quickly found controversy: A tournament official in Indonesia accused Singh of improving his score by a shot, leading to a two-year ban from the Asian Tour. He landed in Borneo as a club pro, training wealthy Englishmen.
He went from there to Africa, then to Europe, and then finally landed on the PGA Tour as the top rookie in 1993. He was always announced as a native of Fiji, but the relationship with his homeland was always chilly, until recently. A recent trip there to start building a golf course was just his second visit in a decade.
He said his trip home “gave me a great sense of feeling for home again. I never thought I would ever go back to Fiji and feel that. They really touched my heart in a nice way and brought me great memories of home again.”
His true home, wherever he has been, is the driving range. This is where he is most comfortable, hitting ball after ball, refining one of the purest swings in the game.
There, he is also well-liked for being one of the more approachable superstars, one who dispenses advice freely. The level of the player does not matter to Singh. He is the rare pro who bridges the gap between the stars and the guys who are barely holding on to their tour cards.
Brad Faxon and Nick Price, tour veterans, count him as a friend. So do Arjun Atwal and Jason Dufner and a host of other players the average sports fan might not know.
They all sing similar praises, that Singh is impossible to outwork, but always agreeable to help make swing changes, and is just as apt to accept advice in return.
“You get him out here where he feels comfortable, this is his office — on the driving range, talking to players, helping players or whatever, he has all the confidence in the world,” said Tom Pernice Jr., one of his best friends. “That’s where we as players get to know Vijay and really understand what he’s about, where he’s joking with people, where he’s knifing them.”
HELPING THE GOVERNOR
It’s not surprising Singh said that had he failed to reach the PGA Tour, he would have continued as a teaching professional. “I looked at golf as my way to make a living, no matter what I did in golf,” he said. “It was my drive.”
He was even willing to give some advice to acting Gov. Richard Codey before a round in June at Baltusrol.
“Just after breakfast, I’m on the driving range,” Codey said. “He walks over and sees me swing. I would never ask for tips from a guy like that, but he said, ‘Governor, the shot you just hit? It went right because you were aimed that way.’
“And he straightened me out. So on the first hole, we tee off, and I’m in the fairway and he’s in the rough. I said to him, ‘It went left because you were aimed left.’”
Singh let out one of his big, high-pitched giggles, and the two men set off down the fairway. Codey said he was at first hesitant to engage Singh in conversation, due to his reputation. But before the end of the round, they were talking about everything from New Jersey politics to how difficult it is to pry their teenage sons away from their video games.
When the round was over, his thought was a familiar one: Why don’t more people embrace Vijay Singh? “He’s a great guy,” Codey said. “Maybe if people knew him better, they’d think differently.”