HONOLULU – Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” in a radio broadcast in the early days of World War II. Seventy-five years later, the former British prime minister’s words could describe one of golf’s biggest mysteries.
In more than three decades of professional golf, Singh has amassed three major championships among his 34 PGA Tour victories and earnings of $68 million. For all of those accomplishments, the native Fijian remains virtually unknown to golf fans, the media and even most players on Tour. His bust in the World Golf Hall of Fame might as well be draped with a shroud, given the secrecy surrounding Singh.
To those who have been part of his tight inner circle, however, the man is revered for giving his time and treasure to those in need. That generous spirit stands in contrast with the public feud unfolding between Singh and the PGA Tour. Last year, Singh was implicated in a Sports Illustrated article about performance-enhancing drugs for his use of deer-antler spray. Though cleared months later of any wrongdoing, Singh in May filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court against the Tour, claiming that his reputation had been permanently harmed. The case is ongoing amid rumors of the Tour’s hefty settlement offer that Singh has declined.
Lawyers for the Tour and Singh have said little about settlement talks while the court weighs the Tour’s motion to dismiss the suit.
To those who know Singh, it’s no surprise that he is standing up for his reputation, regardless of the financial cost.
“It’s not about money,” said Chad Reynolds, who caddied for Singh in 2007-10. “He is one of the most generous people I have ever met. When you’re with Vijay, the one good thing these guys (on Tour) don’t get, it is a team. Him and his caddie, that’s a team. That’s his team. That’s it. That’s all he relies on. If half these guys got it, they’d be a lot more successful; they really would. But it’s not about the money.”
Reynolds, who lives about 15 minutes from Singh’s home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., spent most of his time with Singh at two places: a golf tournament or the back of the range at TPC Sawgrass.
“Vijay is hitting balls for eight hours a day,” Reynolds said. “We’d show up at 10. We never went inside for lunch. Lunch was always brought to us on the back of the range. We’d go from 10 to 6 on his off week, every day. Saturday, Sunday, didn’t matter.”
Tournament weeks were even harder, with Reynolds on the bag two hours before Singh’s tee time, a four-plus-hour round and then practice afterwards. It was a 10-12-hour day for Reynolds, and then many times Singh would want to go to dinner together.
The mandate for implicit loyalty and long hours made Reynolds’ time with Singh eventually impracticable, but the rewards were as outsized as the demands.
Reynolds, who went to work for Nick Watney in 2010, parted amicably with Singh. Predecessor Paul Tesori says he paid a steeper price: 24 days off total in 2001-02, his first of two stints on Singh’s bag.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of time for the rest of life,” Tesori said. “I lost a marriage over it. I wasn’t willing to change my job because I knew obviously it was the chance of a lifetime financially.”
Tesori, who also lived in Ponte Vedra, witnessed the beginning of one of the best stretches in professional golf. From 2002 to ’08, Singh won 25 times – including nine in 2004, when he climbed to No. 1 in the world.
“Vijay, in my opinion, is a golf savant, and the fact that he is so knowledgeable about the game, what makes it work, how to practice, how to prepare, how to see golf courses, and the demand that he has as far as excellence,” Tesori said. “I was already a hard worker when I went to work for him, but he taught me what hard work was really about and what dedication was.”
Tesori struggled as a Tour player from 1997 to ’99. Broke for much of the time, Tesori befriended Singh, who knew that Tesori could improve only one way: practice. So, Tesori says that Singh paid him $100 a day to practice. Tesori wasn’t allowed to play, just practice.
Singh would come over in the middle of the session and provide pointers and encouragement. Singh disputes that he paid Tesori to practice but called it “a bet.” A bet that Tesori would win.
“He really does have a heart of gold,” Tesori said.
When Tesori transitioned from golfer to caddie, landing a bag such as Singh’s proved to be a big coup, professionally and financially. But eventually the money was not enough, and the deeply religious Tesori could not bear leaving his family on Easter to drive 15 minutes to work with Singh on the range.
Four weeks later, the relationship was over.
“I think his wife said one time, they celebrated four holidays a year: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA,” Tesori said. “It’s his love. His passion, his profession, his hobby and his addiction are all the same thing. They’re all hitting balls; they’re all golf. At the time I didn’t look at it that way. I took it personal, but it wasn’t really him being personal about it. It was just him. That’s all he could think about.”
Tesori’s stories about Singh, like Reynolds’, swing toward extremes. Like Reynolds, Tesori holds a similar view on Singh and his lawsuit against the Tour.
“Oh, I don’t think any of this is about money for him at all,” Tesori said. “Everything has always been for Vijay about principle. That’s because of going through that deal when he was younger. He made sure that he never wanted to be painted in that light ever again.”
“That deal” refers to a two-year suspension from the Asian Tour in 1985 after Singh was determined to have improved his scorecard by a stroke to make the cut at the Indonesian Open.
Singh accepted the punishment and moved to Borneo to teach, but the scars from that incident still run deep. When Singh was accused of trying to gain an advantage with deer-antler spray, he acted to clear his name.
“I think he’s kept himself clean as anybody, especially with the rules and with everything else,” said Ernie Els, a four-time major champion and Hall of Famer. “I really feel for him. I wish he could get happy because I think it really bugs him.”
Like a child with older siblings, David Clarke benefitted from what Tesori and Reynolds had experienced upon landing Singh’s bag and experienced a mellower boss.
“I enjoyed his environment,” Clarke said. “He looked after me so well. I mean, whatever I pretty much wanted, he was willing to do. It was a great experience for me.”
If Singh were having an issue with chipping, he would hit balls out of the bunker so he could work on getting a clean strike on the ball. Clarke would be there all the way, raking the bunker.
When he injured a wrist, Singh stayed on the range hitting shots one-handed off a tee to keep his game in shape, and Clarke would tee the balls up for him.
Clarke also would walk on Singh’s back to help loosen it or condition an area that was hurting.
Singh also liked to hit a practice driver with a weighted head into a set of four pillows in his hotel room. On the range at Sawgrass, Singh would have Clarke get a cart tire and Singh would hit the tire down the range at 4 yards a clip.
“We were at L.A. one year, and we were on Venice Beach hitting a tire,” Clarke said. “All these people are walking down Venice Beach, and it’s me and Vijay hitting this tire down Venice Beach because he had this thing, if you could stand on the sand, all that sand that moves about and still do it – some of his method of madness was frightening.”
Clarke recalls Singh’s frequent acts of kindness, notably when the caddie faced steep costs to secure a green card for his wife. “Within 24 hours, he’d wired $10,000 into my account to then start the process for her, and then said to me pay me back in the next month or whenever we have a good week.”
Reynolds had similar experiences of generosity. With a family and a young child, Reynolds would at times bring his son, Caleb, to the range so that they could spend time together while Reynolds worked for Singh.
“He was very generous with us,” said Reynolds, citing pro-ams in which Singh would give $10,000 payments to his trainer and caddie.
For his part, Singh brushes off any perceived largesse as merely fair compensation for the performance that he demands.
“You’ve got to pay the guys what you need to pay them,” Singh said Jan. 9 after a first-round 70 in the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club. “It’s not being generous. It’s what they deserve if you work hard enough and they work with you. It comes with the territory.”
None of the former caddies believes that Singh would cheat. Nor do they think that he would be interested in a financial settlement.
One of Singh’s advisers says Singh wants only to sit with commissioner Tim Finchem and receive a genuine apology. That’s not likely to happen before the New York court rules on the Tour’s motion.
“I don’t care whatever has happened in the history and obviously the Asia thing hurt him, but still to this day, I miss not working for him,” Clarke said. “I do. As hard as it is, the job, and some of the stuff that you have to put up with, I still miss working with him.”