Golf Debates
May 08, 2020

Is Vijay Singh wrong for playing in a Korn Ferry Tour event?

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Keyur Khamar

Golf is not so much our profession as it is our passion at Golf Digest, and often that passion translates to philosophical, analytical, ideological and, occasionally, idiotic workplace discussions about the game. During this time of pause in our sport (and in the world at large), we decided to take these office conversations online in hopes of providing a welcome distraction.

In our latest installment of “Great Golf Debates,” writers Daniel Rapaport and Joel Beall tackle the question: Is Vijay Singh wrong for playing in a Korn Ferry Tour event?

Rapaport: It started with a tweet. It always starts with a tweet.

Brady Schnell, a Korn Ferry Tour player who has missed 13 of his last 14 cuts and is currently ranked No. 913 in the world, is not happy that Vijay Singh is planning to play in his first Korn Ferry Tour event when the circuit restarts next month. “You are a true piece of trash if you except (sic) money playing in a Korn Ferry Tour event and I’ll say it right to your face,” Schnell wrote in a since deleted tweet. Strong words.

Before we discuss Vijay’s complicated history in this game, let’s narrow our focus to the matter at hand: A three-time major winner with over $71 million in career earnings (fourth all-time) playing an event with a $600,000 purse. Singh is 57 years old, well past the point where he’s past his prime, but still has PGA Tour status because he’s won at least 20 tournaments, which gets you lifetime membership. He’s won 34, to be exact. Despite his so-so reputation off the course (and in the scorer's tent), Vijay is a bona fide legend on it, a guy who won 17 events in a three-year stretch from 2003-’05 and the only player to take World No. 1 away from Tiger between August 1999 and October 2010.

Being a lifetime member guarantees you some level of starts each year, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get into every tournament. Because everyone’s going to want to play the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first PGA Tour event since the coronavirus turned the world upside down, Singh isn’t going to get in. But he will get into the Korn Ferry event. And the Champions Tour isn’t returning until the last week of July at the earliest. So, assuming Singh is itching for some competition after a two-month layoff, the KFT event is the best tournament he can get into.

Look, he earned his lifetime membership. No one gave it to him. I understand the main objection—he’s taking a spot in the field from a young up-and-comer—but if the Tour thought something like this was bush league, they shouldn’t have created the lifetime member category. He’s simply following the rules. It’s as simple as that. Your thoughts?

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NurPhoto

Beall: You know that annoying thing on debate shows where, before a talking head argues their point, they make a litany of concessions and provisos in order to justify whatever take is coming out the chamber? Well, strap in.

Because I’m a staunch Vijay defender. Wrote about my experience 20 years ago when a popular player blew me off and the Big Fijian was there to console me. After the piece went up, received responses from Tour workers and fans speaking of similar interactions with Singh. He has a past that continues to haunt in the present, but he is more than his reputation conveys.

I also love that Vijay is a maniac. There are few guys that have accomplished what he has in the game, and when they reach his age, golf is not so much a competitive outlet as it is an amusement or commercial avenue. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Singh, who trains like he’s got an upcoming bout with Ivan Drago. (Side note: We need a workout touchstone that’s not "Rocky IV"-related. Consider the analogy dead and buried.) For those that have a passion for the sport that cannot be doused, Vijay is our spirit animal.

As a reminder, it’s been a busy couple months. THIS, a 57-year-old playing in a feeder circuit event, is what gets people riled up? A part of me welcomed Golf Twitter setting itself on fire over something so trivial, if only because it restored a sense of normalcy. But we can all agree there are more pressing matters, yes?

So, with that in mind ... come on, Vij.

This isn’t a celebrity receiving a sponsor exemption that could bring more eyes to an event. Or a tour pro that has lost his game and is desperately seeking to find it. This move can only be classified as mercenary. By tour bylaw, he is afforded that comfort. But so is the old man at the club, dancing and partying women half his age. Just because it's legal doesn’t make it right.

Then there's the current environment. There will be no PGA Tour graduation for Korn Ferry players this year. Guys are still angling to put themselves in the best position for the carry-over season, but the objective is less focused on making the big time as it survival. Every point earned, and more importantly, every dollar made, means a hell of a lot. I love that professional golf is a meritocracy, but I don’t think we’re treading on participation trophy territory by asking Vijay to read the room on this one.

But before we go too far down this road, take a turn at the wheel.

Rapaport: "Mercenary” involves some sort of monetary incentive. Surely money is the last thing on Vijay’s mind here. Like I said before, he has north of $70 million in career earnings. Should he pull off the ultimate eff-you and somehow win this thing, he’d take home $108,000. A drop in the bucket.

And whether thinking this 57-year-old fits the bill of a tour pro who has lost his game and is desperately seeing to find it, that’s almost certainly what this 57-year-old thinks. Vijay’s known for an other-worldly work ethic, a fitness nut who found a way to play his best golf after turning 40. That doesn’t happen without a remarkable, perhaps nonsensical dedication to his craft. It’s not our job to decide whether a player is totally and completely done. This guy finished sixth in a PGA Tour event last year, after all.

And yes, this hiatus has been brutal for the Korn Ferry Tour guys, who don’t have the financial security that even struggling PGA Tour pros do. But, at the risk of sounding heartless, the Korn Ferry Tour is always a struggle. Tough doo-doo. Ninety-plus percent of professional golf is a financial struggle. That doesn’t mean players should enter the business of considering the money situation of their competitors and then factoring that into their own decisions. It’s every man for himself out there. That’s part of what makes this solitary game—and particularly the oft-lonely journey of playing for money—so beautiful.

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Stan Badz

Beall: From the amount of awful action movies I’ve watched, I’d argue mercenaries aren’t just in it for the money. Some are in it for the taste.

You hit on something, the "Eff-you" factor. There are certain guys who wake up every day angry at the world, and that disposition—at least on the course—has been a catalyst for Vijay. Better yet, he doesn't use contrived slights for fuel. He caddied for a $1 a day in Fiji, gave $4 lessons, battled a media and public that didn't want him to win, and when he did, weren't exactly quick to praise. Vijay can't turn that switch off; he knows no other way. And to ask Vijay Singh to give someone a break may be absurd, because no one ever gave Vijay Singh that luxury.

However, that drop in the bucket payday ... if Vijay decided to forgo any money he'd possibly make (it's worth noting he's missed eight of his last nine cuts on the PGA Tour) do you think it would change the public's perception of this? Or are most entrenched in their Vijay opinions?

Rapaport: It’s an interesting point. Shoutout to Scottie Scheffler, who won the Maridoe Samaritan Fund Invitational last week and donated the entirety of his $9,000 winners check to the club’s caddies.

That, of course, is an awesome gesture. And would it be a nice gesture for Vijay to forego his paycheck? Sure, of course it would. Would it change the public perception? Probably, though it seems most of the outcry is about the spot, not the money.

So yeah, it would be nice. But he’s absolutely not required to do that in the slightest, and we can’t expect that from him…or anyone. If Tiger and Phil didn’t earn another cent in on-course earnings for the rest of their respective careers, their children’s children’s children's children could still go to private school. Again, we’re wading into sketchy territory if we start litigating which guys should start giving up paychecks because they’re all set. I know this is a special circumstance, but principles matter. He earned his spot in the field, which means he earned his chance to make money from the event. For me, it’s just that simple.

Beall: That reminds me, when Mike Weir was logging Korn Ferry Tour starts last year, most applauded the effort. Weir is not in the same echelon as Singh, but the Canadian wasn't hurting for bank, pulling in over $27 million in his tour career. Which means you're right, it's not about the money. Or even Vijay's spot in the field. To many, this isn't a mis-step by Vijay. It's validation of a preconceived notion.

All I know is this: Schnell and Singh better be paired together in Round 1.

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