Paying it Forward A closer view of Vijay Singh and his endless hours on the range reveals a nicer side of golf's supposed misanthrope

March 23, 2004
March 23, 2004

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March 23, 2004

Paying it Forward A closer view of Vijay Singh and his endless hours on the range reveals a nicer side of golf's supposed misanthrope

On the practice tee the best golfer in the world makes every moment
count. When Tiger Woods steps onto the range at a Tour event, his
caddie already has an oversized work station reserved for him. As
Woods strides purposefully toward his clubs, he has an exact plan
for what parts of pure he will tinker with that day. Over his pile
of balls, if Woods is aware of anyone else within spitting
distance--players accomplished and obscure, caddies, swing coaches,
manufacturers' reps--you cannot say. The players sneak peeks at
him. No one would dare to try to break into the Woods cocoon.

This is an article from the March 23, 2004 issue Original Layout

Then there's the second-best golfer in the world. Vijay Singh
moseys along the practice tee, his long feet slightly splayed. When
he wears a cardigan, lately a staple of his wardrobe, he looks
particularly leisurely and elegant. He looks like one of those wise
old golf hands and, at 41, he is. He checks out swings and offers
commentary to many players, both Sunday-afternoon names and, more
often, people you've never heard of. He laughs easily and seems to
have nothing but time for his brethren, even though darkness will
come eventually and send him home. The players, many of them, like
him, and he likes many of them. He tutors them and vice versa.

In the sporting news Singh is often portrayed as a scowling man, a
misanthrope, which means this will likely be news to you: There are
dozens of touring pros who revere Singh for his warmth and humor,
for his generosity and for his willingness to share his swing
insights. This is not the norm in professional golf, particularly
among the game's giants. (Vijay's among them; he's headed for the
Hall of Fame.) Try asking Tiger for a tip.

These FOVs do not care what Singh said about Annika Sorenstam's
playing at Colonial last year, or why he got suspended from the
Asian tour 20 years ago, or what odd parking-lot comment he made
after winning the Masters in 2000. They don't care how churlish he
is in defeat. They dismiss those things because they know a better
Singh. When they say, "Vijay's always been nice to me," it means,
He's helped make me a better player.

The golfers in the Singh camp are a varied lot. They are in their
primes, past their primes and waiting for their primes. There are
some who will never have a prime. They include Hall of Famer Nick
Price and Champions tour headliner Jim Thorpe. John Morgan, a
fledgling Tour player from England, and Arjun Atwal, a Tour rookie
from India, are followers. There's Peter Teravainen, a former
European tour journeyman waiting to turn 50. For every name player
on Singh's buddy list, for every Ernie Els and Jesper Parnevik,
there's a Paul Tesori, a Tour player turned Tour caddie, and Dean
Wilson, a native Hawaiian best known as Sorenstam's playing partner
and cheerleader at Colonial.

Singh is nothing like a snob. He grew up in Fiji but is of Indian
extraction--a descendant of the Hindus and Muslims from the
subcontinent who came to work Fiji's cane fields between 1879 and
1916--and therefore a second-class citizen. Now he's an American
celebrity with a mansion in Florida. But there's nothing in his
golfing friendships that suggests he worships fame and money. He's
also color-blind in a game in which racism still lingers. Classism
has always been rampant in golf, but not in Vijay's world. He'll
develop a golfing friendship with any player who burns to get
better and is prepared to do the necessary work.

"The guys who spend a lot of time on the range become his closest
friends," says Price, one of Singh's regular practice-round
partners. "He has always gravitated toward the guys who work the

Singh's tips, received and given, work their way down the range.
Early last year Singh was hooking tee shots and pulling irons. He
asked Price to have a look. (When you're generous in giving, you
earn the right to be unabashed in asking, too.) Price didn't like
the position of Singh's left hand at the top of his swing. Price
wanted Singh's left hand and wrist to form more of a cup, so that
the face of the club would not be so closed on the downswing. They
fought about it for a while, two stubborn friends, both true
experts on the swing.

In time Singh accepted and incorporated Price's advice. In the
second half of the season Singh began to hit a reliable fade,
taking the left side of the course out of play in the manner that
made Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus legends. Singh won four times,
never played poorly, won the money title and climbed to No. 2 in
the World Ranking. Suddenly golf fans were asking if he might be
the person who could take on Tiger.

Singh, in turn, passed on the cupped-hand tip to Hank Kuehne. This
is not exactly the message preached in the Kevin Spacey movie Pay
It Forward, in which good deeds are passed along exponentially in
an effort to make the world a better place, but you get the idea.

Last month, when the Tour was assembled in La Jolla, Calif., Singh
and Kuehne played a practice round together by day and closed down
the range together at dusk. They talked animatedly--"for most of
the day," says Kuehne--about the sublime benefits of the cupped
left wrist.

Kuehne, like Singh, is a large, strong man and among the longest
hitters in the game. That does not explain their bond. Style of
play has nothing to do with gaining unfettered access to Singh.
Short-whackers like Fulton Allem and Tom Pernice are in the Singh
tent too. Reverence for practice is a must. But the Singh loyalists
also have this in common: strong nonconformist streaks. Pernice is
an unabashedly devout Christian and Allem is shamelessly devoted to
hotel bars and cigarettes. (Who admits to that these days?) Morgan,
with urban music tastes not often found on Tour, often looks as if
he has just returned from an all-night hip-hop gig, but he and
Singh share a trainer and many hours in the exercise trailer.
Parnevik has a penchant for eating volcanic sand and Teravainen for
walking on golf balls to ease his aching back. Singh loves that
oddball stuff.

Outsiders dominate Singh's inner circle. (And his golf friendships
exist mostly outside, literally; his dinner companions are
typically his wife, Ardena, and 13-year-old son, Qass, whose names
are embroidered on his well-worn headcovers.) That Vijay is at once
an outsider and a pro's pro might seem incongruous, but it's
nothing new in golf. In the 1970s Lee Trevino was the pro's pro,
but a loner. (The public never picked up on that.) In the '80s Hale
Irwin was the pro's pro, but he always did his own thing. For much
of the '90s Tom Kite was the pro's pro but never truly one of the
boys. The pattern is a reminder that golf, at its highest and most
intense level, is heavily populated by loners and individualists.
Hogan, who was at home on the range in much the same way that Singh
is, remains golf's ultimate outsider and the sport's most
mysterious figure.

Friendship with such a person takes more effort. Kuehne, a
reformed wild child and a recovering alcoholic who has been sober
for nine years, says of Singh, "You've got to look beyond the past
and try to get to the man that he is." Kuehne would like the same
said of him. Singh is more than willing to.

One of the earliest friendships Singh formed when he started
playing regularly in the U.S. was with another minority player,
Thorpe, but for the two of them to become truly close, Singh had to
first perform an intervention. One March day 11 years ago Singh and
Thorpe were on a Florida range together. Thorpe was never one to
run out of practice balls. Singh, then as now, hit as many as 1,000
balls in a day and seldom less than 500.

"Man," Thorpe said that day, "I've had enough of this s---."

"That's your problem," Singh said. "You won't work at your game
enough to be as good as you could be."

Thorpe had always known that to be true, but he had never done
anything about it. Singh's words were a wake-up call. From that day
on, despite being Singh's senior by 14 years, he gradually took
Vijay's lead about how to practice. Since turning 50 in 1999,
Thorpe has won seven times on the senior circuit and earned $7.8
million. "I owe Vijay," Thorpe says. "His attitude is, 'As hard as
Tiger works, I work harder and I'm going to beat him.' I'm trying
to do the same thing on my tour."

On a Saturday evening in October, Thorpe had a three-shot,
third-round lead over Tom Watson in the season-ending Champions
tour event. Thorpe was on the practice tee, alone, going through
the course in his mind, practicing the tee shots he would need in
the final round, imagining tight holes on a wide-open field,
visualizing. "I learned to do that from Vijay." On Sunday, Thorpe
was in control and Watson never had a chance.

Singh is not the Albert Schweitzer of professional golf. The pros
recognize that when Singh is helping somebody, he's teaching
himself, too. "Part of his learning process is helping other guys,"
says Lee Janzen. But it's not a stretch to say that Singh is giving
something back to a game that has been very, very good to him.

Says Allem, "When Vijay left Fiji and came to Europe--I'm talking
in the '80s now--so many people helped him. I spent hours with him.
[Seve] Ballesteros spent hours with him. John Bland did too." And
now he's returning the favor. "You can walk up to him and say, 'Hi,
Vijay. I just qualified for the L.A. Open on Monday.' And he'll
say, 'Congratulations. I'm happy to meet you.' Then you'll say,
'I'm hooking the ball a little bit. Can you help me with it?' And
he'll say, 'Let's have a look.'"

Paul Tesori, a Florida golfer of no particular note, earned his
Tour card in December 1996. He'd practice and play at the TPC at
Sawgrass, where Singh hangs out when he's not playing tournaments.
They became friends, even though Tesori was playing the Tour like a
two handicapper. Singh felt Tesori practiced the wrong way: too
much time on the course, not enough time on the range. For a week,
when Tesori was nearly broke, Singh offered to pay the struggling
golfer $100 a day if he would go six straight days doing nothing
but hitting balls, with no time on the course.

Late in 2000, when Singh approached Tesori with the idea of having
Tesori caddie for him, he began the conversation by saying, "Don't
take this the wrong way--I'm not knocking your golf game or
anything." Who knew Vijay was so tactful? They worked together for
2 1/2 years, winning four times, a successful relationship born on
the practice tee. Singh doesn't typically keep caddies for very
long, and Tesori now works for Jerry Kelly. "I have a lot to thank
Vijay for," says the former Tour player, who famously wore a cap
that asked TIGER WHO? while working for Singh in the 2000
Presidents Cup.

Maybe what Singh does is the golf version of Pay It Forward.
Twenty-two years ago, when Singh was a teenage pro, broke but
obsessive and with nowhere to practice, Chan Han, a pro at the
Royal Johor County Club in Malaysia, gave Vijay free use of the
range and a bed to sleep on in a room just off the pro shop, a chip
shot from the practice field.

Singh began living on the range then, through the kindness of
another pro. In the years since, nothing has changed. To this day
Vijay regards Han, a Burmese, as a brother. Han doesn't want a
thing in return, except to see Singh doing what he's doing, lifting
a hand to others devoted to the game.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK MR. FIX-IT Though renowned for his tireless work habits, Singh is also a willing swing consultant to his fellow pros.COLOR PHOTO: ELISE AMENDOLA/AP BUDDY SYSTEM Whether it's on the course or on the practice tee, among those whom Singh has helped, and who've helped him, are (from left) Darren Clarke, Kuehne, Price, Ian Leggatt, Els and Paul Azinger.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID J. PHILLLIP/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: LM OTERO/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AARON HARRIS/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DARREN STAPLES/REUTERS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGES NIGHT DRIVING Often only darkness can chase Singh off the range.COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN KERSEY/AP HATS OFF A surprisingly affable Singh returns a cap to a fan after signing an autograph at the 2003 John Deere Classic.
This will likely be news to you: Dozens of Tour pros revere Singh
for his warmth and humor, his generosity and his willingness to
share insights.
Singh offered to pay the struggling golfer $100 a day if he would
go six days doing nothing but hitting balls, with no time on the
golf course.