Vijay Singh: A Controversial Trailblazing Legend


photo: David Bergman

Vija Singh is known among his fellow professionals as a loner, and one who doesn’t often grant interviews or speak to the press at great lengths. The World Golf Hall of Famer especially refrains from talking about much of his early life growing up as an ethnic Indian on the island of FIji, an island that has since curtailed political rights for minorities, or his controversial early professional career. But throughout his life, Singh has shown his ability to rise to every challenge, winning tournaments in Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, and North America. He also is the only man to knock Tiger Woods off his perch as world number 1 during his decade of dominance from 2000-2010. The following tells the story of the legendary “Big Fijian” himself. 

 

Early Life

Vijay Singh was born in 1963 in Lautoka, the second largest city in what was the then British colony of Fiji. His father worked for the airport, which was also home to an 18 hole course. His father was an experienced golfer, and quickly passed his love of the game to his children. VIjay became obsessesd with the sport and would spend most of his afternoons working on his swing at the Airport Country Club until it got too dark to hit any more balls. This dedication led to Singh becoming Fiji’s best golfer by 17, and after playing the World Amatuer Team Championship at Pinehurst at 18, Singh decided he was going to try his luck as a professional golfer. 

 

Turning Professional and Courting Controversies

In 1982, at the age of 19 Singh went to play professional events on various Australian mini-tours. While Singh would win in Australia, he also became known for leaving unpaid bills for frequent calls back to Fiji. This became such a big issue that Ray Graham, head of the South Pacific PGA, confirmed that Singh was temporarily banned from playing in Australia, adding that he was personally owed money at the time (Singh would eventually settle all his Australian debts). Still, the experience in Australia gave Singh the confidence to step up to the Asian Tour. It proved a great decision when, at age 21, he won the 1984 Malaysian PGA Championship, his first ever Asian Tour event. But again a promising start was derailed by controversy.

Singh was accused of altering his score card at the 1985 Indonesian Open in Jakarta. Singh maintains it was a mistake that wasn’t caused by him, but rather by the Indonesian amateur he was playing with who was also keeping score. Despite Singh pleading his innocence, the Asian Tour kicked Singh off the tour. Singh continues to maintain his innocence, though other pros from the events stand by the Asian Tour’s version of events. For the following 2 years, Singh played no professional golf and instead took jobs as a club professional at remote resorts in the heart of Borneo. He credits this time for refocusing himself on his career. 


ESPN

Back to Professional Tours

With the Asian Tour still not an option, Singh chose to go to Africa to compete on the Safari Tour in 1987, where he would win 4 times, including back to back Nigerian Open titles. His performances in Africa gave him the confidence to try out for the European Tour through their Q School, where he tied for second and earned his spot on the prestigious tour. In his rookie season, Singh announced himself to the golf world with a win at the 1989 Volvo Open, and finished the year inside the top-25 on the Order of Merit. Over the following years, Singh would win 3 more European Tour events. By 1993, Singh had qualified for the PGA Tour.

 

PGA Tour 

Now at the pinnacle of professional golf, Singh showed no fear in transitioning to the American tour. He won the 1993 Buick Classic en route to a strong year that saw him take home the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year award at the age of 30. After struggling with injuries in 1994, Singh won the 1995 Buick Classic and the Phoenix Open. Over the next years, Singh would continue to add a handful of victories along with numerous top-10 finishes to bolster his growing reputation. But it was his win at the 1998 PGA Championship that confirmed he was a star. The win was Singh’s first major championship but not his last, as he also took home the green jacket at the 2000 Masters. 


Singh with 1998 Players Championship. Getty Images

Singh continued to improve, and 2003 proved a standout year for Singh and marked the peak of his career. Singh won 4 events and had a remarkable 18 top-10 finish to end the season as the PGA Tour’s money leader, defeating Tiger Woods who was then at the height of his power. In 2004, Singh picked up his 3rd and final major by winning the PGA Championship again. He would win an amazing 9 times that year, ending the year as money leader, Player of the Year, and world number 1, knocking Woods off the top spot for the first time in 264 weeks. 

Singh would continue his strong play though never again reaching the heights of 2003-2004, and began switching his focus between the PGA and European Tours. Though over 40, he continued winning: 2 events in 2007 and 4 in 2008. In fact, Singh continued to play on in the PGA Tour until 2016, when he switched full time to the PGA Tour Champions. Though he still occasionally plays PGA Tour, including finishing T2 at the 2016 Quicken Loans National and 6th at the 2019 Honda Classic at the ripe old age of 56. 

 

More Scandals

Singh was controversially banned from the PGA Tour in 2013 after he admitted in an interview to using deer-antler spray to help treat nagging injuries. Singh was unaware that the spray contained a banned substance, but the PGA Tour banned him for 90 days. Later, after the World Anti-Doping Agency said it did not consider deer-antler spray to be a prohibited substance, the PGA Tour chose to drop the ban. Still, Singh was furious at the charge that he felt should never have led to a public sanction that damaged his public reputation. He chose to sue the PGA Tour for damages, a lawsuit that was later settled. 


Singh in 2019. Getty Images

Legacy

Singh’s legacy is immense. While overshadowed by the brash bravado that was Tiger Woods in the first decade of the new millenium, Singh stands as the the only man to outplay Woods over a season while Woods was at his best. He has 34 PGA Tour wins to go with 9 European Tour wins, 3 majors, and he is the youngest living golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. And he did it coming from a tiny Pacific Islander. No one had walked that path before Vijay Singh, and to this day no one else has followed it. He stands alone as a testament to grit and determination, with legendary attention to detail and a grueling workout routine. It’s no wonder that Singh has already won multiple PGA Tour Champions events, including a Senior Players Championship. Throughout it all, he has remained a solitary man. Though he said in a 1996 interview with Sports Illustrated, “Golf has been a gift to me”, one can make quite the case that Singh was also a gift to golf. 
 

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