PONTE VEDRA BEACH – Vijay Singh has long been a man of contradictions. His trademark ambling gait suggests a relaxed islands attitude, but he can be irascible and brittle. The dedication with which he approached his craft was matched only by the care with which he nurtured his grudges. And as golf became an increasingly sanitized corporate culture, he steadfastly refused to craft a plastic persona that would allow him to say it like he meant it.
At 56, a decade removed from the last of his 34 PGA Tour wins, there’s only a hint of mellowing evident in the Fijian, a slight shrinking of the chips on both shoulders that drove him to compile a record that has been surpassed only by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson over the last quarter-century. As his competitiveness decreases, so too does his combativeness.
In November Singh reached a settlement in his long-running lawsuit against the PGA Tour. It began in 2013 when he admitted using deer antler spray, a banned substance. He claimed the Tour’s ensuing investigation subjected him to public humiliation and that he was treated unfairly. A trial would have opened the Tour’s secretive disciplinary proceedings to public scrutiny, which the recent detente averted. But ill-feeling lingers, and makes Singh about as welcome here at PGA Tour HQ as flatulence in a spacesuit.
Singh lives not far from TPC Sawgrass but prefers to spend his time alone at the private end of the range. “It is my home course, but I never play here. Most of the times when I come here I’m in the back of the range,” he said. “I haven’t played here this year. I played it once last year.”
He was famous for deconstructing his swing on that range every day then rebuilding it piece by piece, every ball struck another rivet in the armor plating that carried him to victory in three majors. It was an old guy’s major— the Senior Players Championship — that earned Singh a spot in the field at the Players Championship, but he admitted that he no longer approaches things with the same intensity that he did back when he displaced Tiger Woods from atop the world ranking.
“I always give it my hundred percent every time, but I don’t feel like I can practice and work as hard as I used to. Like yesterday I hit two bags of balls and I was so tired,” he said with a wane smile. “My mind is still OK, but my body says no.”
How many bags of balls would you have hit two decades ago I asked? “I would probably stay there until I’m ready. And it could be five bags, 10 bags,” he said. “Now I feel like if I got a few shots going the way I want to go, then it’s good, I can take it out there.”
For all of his strained relationships among Tour officials and media — and even among fans who often thought him aloof and distant — Singh was always a popular figure in the locker room. “Very few people didn’t get along with Vijay,” remembers David Duval, who won the Players in 1999. Duval has long since decamped to the TV booth. Singh, almost a decade older, grinds on. He’s missed three cuts in four events in 2019, but played his way into the final group at the Honda Classic last month before finishing sixth.
“He’s managed to keep himself in good enough shape that he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s a hell of a competitor,” Duval marvels. “But the perception didn’t really align with how we knew him as players.”
Singh’s contemporary Paul Azinger insists there’s a gap between the image and the reality. “A huge disconnect,” he said. “If he would have been nice to the media he probably wouldn’t have gotten negativity so much. He doesn’t want to play that game.”
He didn’t much want to play it Wednesday at the Players, blowing off a scheduled press conference then showing up 20 minutes late for the rescheduled gathering. When he did arrive, he admitted that winning on the PGA Tour now would bolster an already impressive legacy, and that while the dedication has waned, the desire hasn’t.
“A few years ago when I played here it was different. There’s a lot more work required to go out there and be ready to play. The preparation is a little bit different than when I play the Champions Tour. But I really want to win too,” he said. “My goal is to see if I can win. I really want to play and play to win.”
Perhaps Singh hasn’t changed that much after all.