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  • Alistair Tait

Vijay Singh deserves grudging respect

Ben Hogan had a stock response when anyone asked what made him such a great ball striker.

“The secret’s in the dirt,” Hogan would reply.

It’s a phrase Vijay Singh understands well. Arguably no major winner has spent more time digging a swing out of the dirt than the Fijian. You’ll also be hard pressed to find a major winner who’s attracted more controversy.

His legal battle with the PGA Tour over his use of deer antler spray took five years of litigation before it was settled out of court just a couple of years ago.

He’s at it again. Singh’s decision to play in the Korn Ferry Challenge caused Brady Schnell to label him

“A true piece of trash” and “a complete turd.”

Think water and duck’s back if you’re looking for Singh’s response. The three-time major champion has been called far worse and rolled through life with an “I really don’t give a flying you-know-what” attitude.

Schnell later apologised for his outburst. As he should. I don’t buy the ‘he’s taking a spot from another player’ argument. Singh is eligible for a place in the tournament and he’s taking it. End of. That’s not just me talking. Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Steve Elkington, among others, defended Singh’s right to play. Besides the tournament is being held at TPC Sawgrass’s Dye’s Valley Course near Singh’s Ponte Vedra home.

Guardian golf writer Ewan Murray penned a good piece on Singh earlier this week, profiling one of the most enigmatic players the game has ever seen. The 57-year-old refused to be interviewed for the piece. No surprise there: Singh doesn’t do media.

Singh’s reluctance to step into the limelight stems from his two-year ban from the Southeast Asian Golf Federation (the forerunner of the Asian Tour) for changing his scorecard in the 1985 Indonesian Open.

Singh has spent his entire career with this albatross around his neck. It’s a part of his life he just refuses to talk about, the reason he shies away from all media interviews.

The Fijian was 22 years old when he committed his sin. For most it would have been the end of their career, and yet Singh went on to win three major championships, notch up countless victories around the world and reach world number one.

Singh’s Jakarta shenanigans ensured him a frosty reception from some quarters when he arrived on the European Tour. Singh asked Bob Torrance for lessons. Torrance had to turn him down because the players he already taught said that if Torrance coached Singh then he wasn’t teaching them.

It’s hard to warm to a player with a past like Singh’s. And yet he demands a grudging respect for his incredible work ethic. Stories of Singh’s practice regimes are legendary.

“Every time I stepped on the range, Vijay seemed to be there,” Tony Johnstone once said. “And when I left the range he was still there hitting balls. I couldn’t physically hit as many balls in a week as Vijay hit in one day.”

Nick Price once set out to see if he could outlast Singh on the range during a practice day for a PGA Tour event. Price lasted around three and half hours before throwing in the towel, realising there was no way he could hit as many balls as the Fijian without risking his chances of playing in the tournament.

When he lived in Chiswick, West London, in the 1990s, Singh talked the groundskeeper of nearby playing fields into letting him use the rugby fields for practice. Singh would sneak through a hole in a chain link fence, set himself up in a quiet corner behind a tall hedge and spend hours drilling iron shots though the distant uprights. When the light faded, Singh headed to nearby Chiswick Driving Range to beat balls into the floodlit night.

Former European Tour pro Malcolm Mackenzie also lived in Chiswick in those days. He remembers bumping into Singh at the driving range to find him engaged in a strange practice routine.

“Vijay was alternating hitting balls with two drivers,” Mackenzie said. “He had his regular driver with a very stiff shaft, but he also had this other lady's driver with a shaft that was as flexible as a fishing rod. He would hit a ball with one and then swap to the other and hit another ball and alternate back and forth.
“Eventually I asked him what he was doing and he told me it was an exercise to help him with his rhythm. It was new one on me, but when you spend as much time on the range as Vijay does then you come up with a lot of different practice ideas.”

Mark Roe played with Singh in the Scottish Open at Gleneagles during the 90s and remembers a strange conversation on the first tee.

“He comes up to me and says: ‘Mark I probably won’t talk to you too much today because I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the rough.’ I was a bit surprised and asked him if he thought he was going to play badly, but he said 'no.' He told me he was going to be walking through the rough swinging a club through the tall grass to help build up his forearms. This was from a guy who many thought had graphite forearms any way from all the balls he hit. So that’s what he did, he spent the round swishing clubs through long the long grass.”

No matter that you think about Singh, he’s earned success the hard way and deserves his place in any field, even a Korn Ferry one.

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