Considering the chip on his shoulder, it's amazing how well Vijay
Singh hits the ball. The man who celebrated his 2000 Masters
victory by muttering, "Kiss my a--, everybody," on his way out
arrived at Olympia Fields last week frowning like a
Republican at a Hillary Clinton book signing. He honored
autograph requests with a dismissive air. He brushed past
reporters, including one who wanted to ask "just one golf-related
question." ("I really don't give a s---," Singh said.) From his
demeanor you wouldn't have guessed that Singh was coming off a
win and two top five finishes in his last three tournaments, or
that he was about to shoot a 63 to tie the U.S. Open record and
take a share of the second-round lead. (He would eventually
finish 20th, 11 shots behind Jim Furyk.)
Singh, if you somehow missed it, became roadkill when the media
bandwagon rumbled through Texas a month ago to chronicle Annika
Sorenstam's appearance at the Bank of America Colonial. In a
moment of reckless candor he had told the Associated Press that
he hoped Sorenstam would miss the cut when she played with the
men. Furthermore, if he were paired with her--an impossibility
under the PGA Tour's pairing system--he said he would refuse to
play. His reward for this less-than-gallant rant was predictable:
instant elevation to male-chauvinist-icon status.
Since his uncharacteristic foray into punditry, the world's
fifth-ranked golfer has played dodge 'em with his tormenters.
Singh withdrew before the start of the Colonial. He declined
requests for interviews at the Memorial, even when he was tied
for third after the third round. He smoldered. At a press
conference for a charity skins game in Pennsylvania hosted by
Furyk, Singh bristled when asked about the gender controversy.
"Enough of this," he said, adding under his breath, "That's
bulls---." He told Tour officials, not for the first time in his
career, that he would henceforth speak with the media only when
he is leading a tournament.
Anybody who has seen what happens when the press gets some poor
sap in its crosshairs can sympathize with Singh. He is not, after
all, a serial felon or chronic evildoer. He's simply a fellow who
let slip that he likes playing in a traditional boys-only league.
On the other hand, Singh has handled his predicament so
maladroitly that he practically invites his critics to pile on.
At that skins game, for instance, he could have stipulated that
he would not address questions about Annika. That would have made
it unnecessary for an embarrassed Furyk to intercede on Singh's
behalf and would have given Singh an opportunity to defuse the
June 22, 2003
But that's not Singh's style. When he doesn't like the script, he
refuses to read his part.
Last Friday evening, when he appeared in the press tent to talk
about his round of 63--only the fourth in U.S. Open history--he
pretended that there was no controversy. "I have focused on what
I'm doing, and that's playing the golf course and golf
tournaments," he said. Asked about a heckler who had been
escorted off the course by police after shouting, "If it would've
been Annika, it would have gone in the hole," at the 14th green,
Singh said, "I didn't notice anything." Pressed to explain the
salute he gave as the man left, he said, disingenuously, that he
was waving to his caddie.
Singh, 40, has suffered for his lack of forthrightness. For years
he played under a shadow of suspicion because of a
scorecard-altering incident at the 1985 Indonesian Open, which
got him banned from the Asian tour. Singh's sportsmanship and
integrity have been beyond reproach since that youthful
indiscretion, but he never publicly accepted responsibility for
the violation. Instead, he characterized it as a
"misunderstanding" and retreated behind a scowl. Years later,
when his success as a player made him the inevitable target of
media interest, he discouraged questions about his background
and, on more than one occasion, refused to talk at all. As a
consequence, he hasn't gotten half the credit he deserves for a
decade of brilliance on the PGA Tour.
His refusal to close out the Sorenstam affair is more of the
same. Millions of nongolfing Americans now think of Singh as
Tweedledum to Hootie Johnson's Tweedledee. Few of them know, or
care, that Singh is having perhaps the best year of his career,
with wins at the Phoenix Open and the Byron Nelson and five other
top 10 finishes, including a tie for sixth at the Masters. Even
fewer know that Singh was not born with a silver foot in his
mouth--he learned the game as a boy on the shores of Fiji and
suffered actual, not imagined, discrimination as an ethnic Indian
in a homeland dominated politically by native Fijians. That kind
of context gets lost when a journalist's question is answered
with a glare and an obscenity.
The hostility does not stop with Singh. His wife, Ardena, has
always believed that her husband is treated unfairly. His
handlers haven't done much to smooth the waters either. Singh's
agent, Clarke Jones of IMG, was asked last week if the golfer's
feud with the media concerned him. "I don't have a comment on
that," Jones said icily. He then turned and walked away.
Some insist that Singh has to apologize for his remarks about
Sorenstam. He doesn't. He merely has to voice his opinions
without sarcasm or rancor, and he needs to behave as
professionally off the course as he does on it. Otherwise he will
keep getting pounded. Three years ago, when Singh won the
Masters, another Tour player unfairly questioned his worthiness,
saying, "Once a cheater, always a cheater." Last week a Chicago
columnist used the same meter to rip Singh anew: "Once a weasel,
always a weasel."
Singh might want to consider a new media strategy.
70 | 63 | 72 | 78 | +3 | 20th
Singh has handled his predicament so maladroitly that he
practically invites his critics in the media to pile on.