Anniversaries of the sporting kind may be the only currency to soar in a pandemic. With live action paralysed, it isn’t difficult to envisage starved writers scraping around for first-hand accounts of Pindarrie’s triumph in the 2000 Guineas of 1820.
Using an equine analogy, Vijay Singh was unquestionably a thoroughbred. The Fijian spent 32 weeks as the top-ranked golfer in the world. He defeated Tiger Woods in his pomp and returned three major victories in a professional haul of 64. In 2004, Singh won nine times. He sits fourth in the PGA Tour’s all-time money list, having collected more than $71m.
April came and went without celebration of Singh’s finest hour. Twenty years had passed since he claimed the Masters. Woods, Ernie Els and David Duval couldn’t keep pace as Singh prevailed by three. Singh was already a US PGA champion but this meant more: Augusta National’s shameful history of racism was thrown back into sharp focus by a black man donning the Green Jacket for only the second time.
Singh didn’t grow up in poverty but he didn’t have much. Coconuts took the form of golf balls and he crawled through a drainpipe to reach his local course. Pieced together, his story should be one of fairytale; instead, it is barely acknowledged. The relationship between the golf world and Singh is a complicated one, emphasised when I got in touch with his management to speak to the 57-year-old about events of 2000 at Augusta. “Vijay would rather pass on the opportunity,” came the reply in respect of a wholly positive topic.
There was no scope to take the refusal personally; Singh didn’t appear in any alternative outlet. The affair conjured memories of approaching Singh before the 2011 Masters, when compiling the kind of vox pop that causes golf reporters undue stress. “Huh?” was Singh’s initial retort. He subsequently and briefly answered the trivial question while leaving the impression he would rather be undergoing root canal treatment.
That Singh has little time for the media is far from breaking news. As these pages put it in 2003: “This complex and vulnerable man could not care less about schmoozing the men and women who, whatever else they are, are the only real link between him and the public.” The feeling is generally mutual. If Singh has no appetite to offer insight, why should anybody afford him publicity?
Nonetheless, when Singh has chosen to open up he shines light into a life less ordinary. In 2008 he reflected, for example, on 1987 when working as a doorman at an Edinburgh nightclub. Singh travelled to the UK to try to qualify for the Open at Muirfield. “The women were the hardest ones to handle,” Singh recalled. “When they fight … goodness gracious me.
“The worst part of the job was telling people they couldn’t come in because they were too drunk. It’s tough to always be the bad guy. I remember walking to my car – I had an old jalopy – at two in the morning and worrying about getting attacked. My car was fine if it started right away, but it often didn’t. So it could get a bit scary, wondering if a gang of guys were waiting for me.”
Singh was already seen as “the bad guy”. He was banned from the Asian Tour in 1985 after allegations he had doctored a scorecard. Singh maintained his innocence but in golf mud of that kind sticks.
The most illuminating and endearing tales of Singh emanate from Scotland’s capital. Willie Dyet was given the task of looking after Singh after he arrived from Malaysia.
“He had no money; and when I say no money I mean, no money,” Dyet says as he recalls paying £32 after Singh was refused the courtesy of the course at Gullane. Dyet funded new tyres for the jalopy. “But he was an excellent guy, no problem at all. He told me everything, no secrets. And he was totally dedicated to his golf.” Singh spotted Dyet by Carnoustie’s putting green at the 2018 Open, made a beeline for him and chatted with the warmth of an old friend.
In 2003, Singh generated unwanted attention again. He was scathing about Annika Sörenstam being allowed a place in a PGA Tour event. “It’s ridiculous,” said Singh. “She’s the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasise ‘woman’. I hope she misses the cut.” Being kind to Singh, who later said he had been misquoted, perhaps he felt his own toil towards the summit of the male game was being undermined by tokenism.
A decade later, Singh was embroiled in a more unorthodox controversy. He admitted using deer antler spray, with the PGA Tour quick to launch an investigation due to the presence of the IGF-1 growth hormone. The Tour subsequently said it had “no reason to believe that Mr Singh knowingly took a prohibited substance” after “new information” from the World Anti-Doping Agency “deemed it only fair to no longer treat Mr Singh’s use of deer antler spray as a violation of the Tour’s anti-doping program”. Singh wasn’t placated. The golfer launched a lawsuit while insisting the Tour exposed him to “public humiliation and ridicule”. Here we had the Tour and one of its greatest beneficiaries engaged in warfare. It took until 2018 for an announcement that the matter had been resolved.
When asking questions among fellow professionals about Singh, two themes are recurring. Golf-wise, he is described as borderline obsessional and filled with knowledge. Singh’s personality is perceived by many as aloof. “He can be like that with other players unless he likes and respects them, as a consequence he isn’t overly popular,” explains a major champion of Singh’s vintage. “He is a bit of a loner but still works his ass off on his game.” Singh came close to winning the Honda Classic last year; his graceful swing has proved enduring.
His is an outstanding career, confirmed when Singh gained entry to golf’s hall of fame in 2006. Six years earlier he delivered the marquee moment. Woods won golf’s other three majors in 2000 and the Masters of 2001 and 2002. He has since enjoyed a reincarnation of golf and character; Singh has no desire to step into his own conversation. If this isn’t a source of general frustration, it should be.