More detail on Vijay Singh’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour is coming out, which, though interesting, doesn’t signal a resolution anytime soon. If the case goes to trial, lawyers estimate its start would be at least a year away.
Many commenters have called Singh an ingrate—or worse—for suing the organization that has allowed him to win $70 million in prize money. But Singh undeniably suffered a hit to his reputation in 2013 when the tour suspended him for 90 days after he admitted he had used deer-antler spray without knowing it contained traces of a banned growth hormone. Although the tour in subsequent weeks dropped the penalty after learning the World Anti-Doping Agency did not consider the spray “prohibited, per se,” Singh argues that he should have never been publicly sanctioned and is seeking damages.
The case is a mixed bag, as is, unfortunately, the 52-year-old Fijian’s whole career. A journey that began with him hitting coconuts instead of golf balls on a small island in the South Pacific and took him to the World Golf Hall of Fame rivals Sam Snead’s in rags-to-riches scope. Singh’s 34 tour wins, nine more on the European Tour and three majors gives him the third-best record (behind Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson) among players who began their PGA Tour careers after 1990 (with the caveat that Singh was already 30 as a rookie in 1993).
It was Singh’s 2004 season—in which he won nine times with a major—that stands out as the most anyone ever outplayed Woods in Tiger’s prime. That year Singh became the only player in the first 10 years of this century to take the No. 1 spot on the World Ranking from Woods. Though the two rarely spoke when paired together, the soon-to-be 40 Woods recently said that Singh’s remarkable 22 wins in his 40s is what Tiger wants to model.
But despite a powerful game marked by a still majestically rhythmic swing, the 6-foot-2 Singh has never been a charismatic star. Though he can be gregarious with fellow pros, he has been diffident with the media. Clearly he resented inquiries about being suspended from the Asian Tour for two years after allegedly changing his scorecard at the 1985 Indonesia Open. Singh has disputed the charge, but never in any depth, and it hovers over him, unresolved.
In his recent book, veteran caddie Steve Williams, who worked for Terry Gale in the Indonesia event in question, wrote: “I think you have to man up and admit your mistakes. Vijay has vehemently denied he did anything wrong, and I’m still angry to this day he hasn’t admitted his error.” Williams added that he believes Singh “should have been banned from golf completely.”
Indeed, such unsparing judgment to the cheating accusation is almost certainly what caused Singh to be so determined in his legal pursuit of full vindication about deer spray. Because of what allegedly went down in Indonesia, Singh in the minds of many is guilty until proven innocent. His court case might seem disloyal, but it is not frivolous.
I hope some clarity and closure comes from the case, but Singh has admitted the process has been a distraction to his performance. Going into 2016, he appears in a kind of limbo, too proud to transition to the Champions Tour but, to all appearances, finally lacking enough game to be a contender on the PGA Tour.
No better than a below-average putter in his prime, Singh has consistently resided at the bottom of the tour’s revealing strokes gained/putting category for several years. Just as tellingly, he is losing measured clubhead speed (about four miles an hour since 2008) and accompanying distance. Singh is no longer the marvel of a big man who kept his length to play the same style game as kids half his age.
The results say it all. His last win was the 2008 Deutsche Bank Championship en route to the FedEx Cup title. In majors, he has only one top-10 since 2007 (T-9, 2012 British Open). The last three seasons, he has finished 119th, 87th and 146th on the FedEx Cup points list.
The same fierce pride that has always driven Singh is what’s keeping him toiling out on the big tour, along with, surely, a deep desire for one more win to throw in the face of his detractors. But I’d argue that frequently contending and occasionally winning on the Champions Tour would win him more admirers (and sympathizers) and be better for his legacy. Think Fred Couples.
Whatever happened in Indonesia, and whatever his flaws, I know Singh as a true seeker who derives immense satisfaction and generously shared wisdom from endlessly refining his golf swing. It has been obvious watching him on practice ranges for 22 years, and it was obvious during a long conversation for Golf World in 2005, in which Singh said: “I just love to hit good golf shots. Looking at the target, seeing the shot and hitting the shot. I just love to see the ball fly the right way. If I can hit the ball the way I want to hit it on the range, I can hit for hours and hours, hitting it the way you want to hit it.”
No matter what, that’s the Vijay Singh who should be remembered.
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2015 issue of Golf World.