Even in spotlight, shadows follow Singh

Originally Published: November 3, 2003
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

Vijay Singh sits atop the golf world, hot off his fourth straight top-two finish and the defending champion this week at the Tour Championship, where the two-time major champion from Fiji could clinch the PGA Tour money title.

Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh's marathon sessions on the range are legendary, but so is his cold shoulder when it comes to the media.

A victory on Sunday would have done the trick, but Singh could not overcome Retief Goosen, which means it will come down to the final tournament of the year, with Singh forcing Tiger Woods to win in order to capture his fifth straight money title.

The two will be paired together during the first round Thursday in Houston, a 1-2 showdown that is great for the game.

No doubt, Singh has come a long way from giving lessons in obscurity and beating balls in a monsoon because there was nothing better to do.

In the jungles of Borneo, amid stifling heat and no promise of tomorrow, Singh could not even fathom golf stardom. In fact, a 20-handicapper might have an easier journey, and Singh was far better than that -- an accomplished player with no place to play, exiled to an outpost far removed from the PGA Tour.

"If I start thinking that far back, I'll probably wake up from this dream,'' Singh said after his victory at the Funai Classic on Oct. 26, allowing a rare glimpse of himself. "You put me in that situation, gosh, I was thinking about the next day ... I was starting to think how I'm going to hit the next day or how many lessons are you going to have the next day.

"It's so far away, and I don't wish anybody to be in that position. A lot of times I wake up and think about the times that I was back there ... this is really like a dream come true.''

Singh's rags-to-riches tale should be one of the best in golf, but anyone who follows the game closely knows it is one rarely told. Singh has had trouble putting the events that led to his exile in Borneo behind him, and he has a tense relationship with the media for various reasons.

One occurred this year, and it was a doozy: Singh was asked his opinion about Annika Sorenstam competing in the PGA Tour's Colonial tournament back in May. Singh said he hoped she missed the cut and that he would withdraw if paired with her.

A firestorm of criticism ensued. Although Singh was not the only player critical of Sorenstam's invitation, he made it the most personal and unprofessional. No golfer ever wishes a missed cut on another player.

Given the chance to explain, or even apologize, Singh said he was misquoted and taken out of context -- despite the fact that the Associated Press golfer writer, Doug Ferguson, who wrote the story, is highly respected and said he attributed the comments as they were said.

Singh rebuffed an opportunity to play a practice round with Sorenstam at the Colonial -- he later withdrew from the tournament -- and has turned down a commercial endorsement that would have put the two together. He declined an invitation to the Skins Game, where she will play, and generally has taken the attitude that he was wronged, rather than he was wrong.

"The thing he should have taken back was 'I wish she had missed the cut.' '' said Paul Azinger. "Look, I was against it (Sorenstam playing). A lot of people were against it. I wasn't against her. I think the tour should have a gender policy.

"Vijay and I are good buddies,'' Azinger said. "All I can say is it's a shame he doesn't want to talk to the press because he's got a lot to say. I think he's really clever. I don't think he does himself any good at all. But his attitude is, 'I don't know you, I don't know you. I've got more money than I can spend and there's nothing you can do to help me.' "

Amazingly, Singh has put the distractions aside to have the best year of his career. He has won four times, leads the PGA Tour money list by $768,494 over Woods, and has finished outside of the top-10 just once since the British Open. At 40, two weeks ago he reached No. 2 in the world -- the highest ranking of his career. But public relations is not his strong suit. There are countless stories of rudeness and aloofness. Golfweek magazine reported an incident several weeks ago where Singh made an obscene gesture to fellow PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee in a restaurant. Chamblee, who also does television commentary, was critical of Singh for his remarks about Sorenstam.

Singh will often walk past players granting interviews and chide them for talking to reporters. After his win at the Funai Classic, he refused to address an innocuous question in his post-victory news conference asked by the AP's Ferguson.

"I think Vijay is misinterpreted frequently,'' Nick Price said. "People think he's cold. Those of us who know him pretty well ... he's a warm-hearted person. But if you look at his record with the media, going back to the early days, there's not much trusting. It's just his nature. I think it's easier for him to focus as a blanket as opposed to one individual. But he's a good person, I tell you.''

"He doesn't trust anybody,'' Azinger said. "The main reason he doesn't trust anybody is because of what happened way back when. I don't know what happened. I've never asked him about it. For that reason alone, he's always had a distrust.''

Azinger is referring to a cheating allegation. It occurred at the 1985 Indonesian Open, where Singh was said to have altered his scorecard by a stroke in order to make the cut. Not only was he disqualified, but Singh was suspended indefinitely from the Asian Tour.

And the incident has haunted him ever since. He remains bitter that it is still brought up, although he has never completely set the record straight, calling it a "misunderstanding'' and insinuating there is more to the story.

"Why should I admit to cheating, even 15 years ago, if I didn't?'' he told Golf Digest in a 2001 interview. "Just so you people in the press won't keep bringing it up? I cannot do that. That would be dishonest in itself.''

Singh had no money and no place to go after the cheating accusation, so he took a series of club pro jobs in Borneo, an island in the South Pacific, before re-emerging to win the 1988 Nigerian Open and the Swedish PGA. By 1989, he was playing in Europe and joined the PGA Tour in 1993. Since then, he's earned some $25 million and lives in a Ponte Vedra Beach mansion, with his wife, Aredena, and son, Qass.

It is Singh's misfortune -- or perhaps his intention -- that his whole background overshadows such a fine player. Singh now has 15 PGA Tour victories and a total of 36 worldwide. For six straight years, he has finished no lower than fifth on the PGA Tour money list. This year, he has finished in the top-10 in 15 of his past 20 events.

"I think Vijay Singh's life would make an amazing movie,'' said his agent at International Management Group, Clarke Jones. "Some of the things he's confronted, some of the things he's overcome. He's a very unique guy who has a special skill. Not many people are the best in the world at what they do.''

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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