By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
The most important thing you need understand about Vijay Singh is that those of us outside the ropes will never really know much at all.
There are bits of information that trickle in every so often, but not many. We know headline writers love Singh-in-the-Rain moments. We know he smiles – at times. He’s given to thoughtful answers when he wants to talk, short ones when he doesn’t.
He’s a World Golf Hall of Famer with three major titles and a work – and fitness – ethic that won’t quit. A player who opened tournament driving ranges in the morning and closed them – under lights brought in for him – at night. The last guy not named Tiger Woods to hold the No. 1 spot in the world in more than a decade.
The one player who’s assured of an A-plus guest list when he throws a party during THE PLAYERS week; a guy whose icy stare can have the rank-and-file outside the ropes walking on eggshells when they’re around him. A player who somehow manages to reconcile both sides so comfortably inside his powerful 6-foot-2 frame. A guy who seems to simply tolerate the trappings that go along with being one of the best in the game.
Make no mistake. Singh likes it that way. He was Mr. Icy Stare way before Tiger, but somewhere after Raymond Floyd. He was the Iron Man, too, until a bad knee slowed him down in 2009 and a balky back added insult to that rehab, one of those 47-year-olds you never count out.
Guys like Kenny Perry spend down time working on cars. Phil Mickelson hangs out with his family. Davis Love III snowboards. Veej hits balls. And being justthatside of 50? Please? He’ll find the Champions Tour when he’s ready, not because he can because of a random birthdate.
He’s been a bit of out of sight – and mind – for a bit now. The knee set him back; the back didn’t help. Two top-10s this year – a share of fourth at The Honda Classic; a tie for ninth at the AT&T National. Five missed cuts in 19 tries coming into the PGA Championship. As for ranking? Try 72nd in the world and trending down.
We didn’t see this one coming. After all, Singh has always bounced back. He was ready to go back in the spring and . . .
Unless something changes during practice rounds, he’s not even close to being a short-lister at Whistling Straits. He’s the only player who has won a major there, too. That being the only major ever played there – the 2004 PGA Championship.
That Sunday, Justin Leonard led by two shots with five holes to go, but wound up in a three-hole playoff with Singh and Chris DiMarco. Singh almost drove the green on the first playoff hole for his only birdie that day and didn’t look back.
That he shot the highest closing round by a winner in PGA history – a no-birdie 76 – didn’t matter. What did was that he walked off with his third major – to go with the 1998 PGA and 2000 Masters – and the fourth of what would be nine PGA TOUR wins that season. More than enough to put him on a collision course with that No. 1 spot. At age 41.
By then, we knew what to expect. It wasn’t like 1998 when the Fijian was as tight-lipped as could be as he took the spotlight all four rounds at the PGA Championship at Sahalee – another first-time major venue. Someone described him as phlegmatic back then. It stuck.
Singh has always had a rocky relationship with reporters. He’s not one to elaborate and tell stories in interviews. Yet one-on-one – you do have to wait him out at the range – he can be funny and thoughtful. Why? It’s simple. He demands as much from reporters as he does from himself.
One day, this reporter stood through a basket-plus of range balls waiting to toss out one question. When he finished and looked over, he said one question. A few minutes later, he was talking about his son Qass and laughing.
Singh has won nine times on TOUR since winning his second PGA. He has made a few runs up the leaderboard at majors and won the 2008 FedExCup. And, he has played on every Presidents Cup team. Should play again next year, too.
He’s a little softer around the edges now. A bit quicker with a joke or a comeback to reporters. He doesn’t mind letting you know Qass is at Fordham now and he’s living in Manhattan. But he doesn’t go out of his way to seek attention.
You can bet, though, he doesn’t like not being on golf’s short list. He was, after all, a must when naming major names for most of the decade.
Headlines don’t do much for him. Perfect shots coming off the clubface do. He loses himself on the range, working until almost everyone his gone. His breaks come, not for lunch, but to work with someone who has reached out to him or maybe just the guy standing next to him heaving sighs of frustration.
Singh is a self-made man. His father was an airplane mechanic and he grew up playing at a nine-hole course across an airplane runway from the family’s home. He was a quiet kid, who grew a thick skin coming up on the Asian Tour and never quite forgot some of the rough treatment he feels he got.
When someone brings up the past, Singh tightens up. Doesn’t want to go there. Conversation is close to over. At the same time, he doesn’t mind having a bit of fun on the practice range or filming commercials.
You think he’s nothing like Phil Mickelson? You’re right. The fans adore Mickelson and cite chapter and verse about his life; the players know little more than what they hear. Tons of what we’ve learned about Singh has come from his friends; the people he trusts.
And, of course, from his clubs.
When he won the Golf Writers Association of America Player of the Year Award following the 2004 season, he attended a dinner on the night before the first round of the Masters. Before stepping into the room, he wasn’t sure what he would say. He spoke from the heart and knocked it out of the park.
This week might be a good one for Singh. He’s coming off that share of ninth at the AT&T National and a T-37 at the British Open. People are putting zero expectations on him to go 2-for-2 at Whistling Straits. Even he knows winning there that long ago isn’t a factor.
He could contend here, but he may not. No matter what happens, though; no matter how many times he takes a seat in the interview room or stops outside the scoring trailing, we know one thing for sure.
He’s not going to let us know much. Just another sliver or two. Just enough to remind us that we really don’t know much at all.