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Vijay Singh Has Always Been Reluctant To Discuss His Early Years As A Pro, And For Good Reason

May 11, 2015

This article originally appeared in the August 19, 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated and is reprinted here as part of a new monthly series for Golf+ called “Golf’s Greatest” exploring golf’s best stories, events and personalities through the eyes of writers who were there to see it for themselves. In the first installment, John Garrity joins Pete Madden to talk about his trip to Fiji and the investigation that led to this fascinating profile. Listen here:

They must be dancing in the streets in Fiji. — TV voice at last week’s PGA Championship, where Fiji’s Vijay Singh came within an eyelash of becoming the first player of color to win a major championship.

It’s June 1996, and no one is dancing. In fact, the prime 
minister of Fiji looks exasperated. Like many in his Polynesian
 island republic, Sitiveni Rabuka appears torn between admiration 
for Singh — “Fiji’s only sports millionaire” — and peeve that the
 expatriate golfer seems not to care what anybody in his homeland 
thinks. “Don’t pay too much attention to the negative feelings 
we have,” says the prime minister, looking fresh after 18 holes
 at Fiji’s Denarau Island resort. “I know Vijay personally; 
that’s why I can’t say more nice things about him.”


Anyone looking for a hint of irony in the eyes of Fiji’s
 strongman will be disappointed. But Rabuka (pronounced
ram-BOO-ka) — described in that morning’s Fiji Sunday Post as
”the world’s most dashing coup leader” — is a golfer himself, an
 almost daily visitor to the Fiji Golf Club in Suva, the capital. 
He is also honorary president of the Fiji Professional Golfers
 Association. So while he might bristle when he hears that Singh 
has set foot in Fiji only twice in 16 years and fume when he
 reads that Singh thinks Fiji is no place to raise his 
six-year-old son, he must consider also that the tall, handsome
 Singh hits a two-iron about as well as anybody on earth.

That’s why Rabuka recently sent Singh a Fijian diplomatic
 passport — an honorary device allowing one to sweep through 
immigration channels and past border guards. Rabuka wonders,
 however, if he will get even a thank-you note from Singh, who 
now splits his time between homes in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.,
 and London.

“He’s flying the Fiji flag out of convenience, I think,” says
 Rabuka, who seized power in a 1987 putsch and quickly raised
 himself from the rank of lieutenant colonel to brigadier
 general. “He’s not very keen on coming back. He said Fiji was a 
nice place to visit, but he didn’t want to live here.”

The prime minister, barely sweating after shooting 76 on the
 two-year-old Denarau course, breathes deeply of the trade winds
 cooling the open-walled club bar. He stares out at the 
palm-lined fairways and green mountain backdrop as if intent on 
discerning what would keep a true Fijian away. Specifically, he
 wonders why Singh’s last visit, in February, was only a
 whirlwind stop for a farcical skins game organized by Vijay’s
 older brother, Krishna. “I wish Vijay could come back and live 
here,” Rabuka says, “so our people could see and learn from a
 man who approaches his sport with such professionalism.”

That seems unlikely. Opportunities for professional golfers are
 few in the Republic of Fiji, which has a population of 750,000 
and only 11 courses, most of them scruffy, nine-hole tracks. But
 surely, an overseas visitor ventures, the prime minister is
 heartened by Singh’s recent promise to fund a junior golf 
program in Fiji, a national system to identify and train the
 Vijay Singhs of the future. Rabuka snorts. “I’ll believe it when 
I see it,” he says. “I don’t think he’s sincere.”


Let’s go back to May of this year. Vijay Singh, 33 and
 prosperous, is having an iced tea in the grill room of the
 Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach. He would rather be
 out under the high sun hitting balls on the practice range — this 
is not surmise, he says so — but he has agreed to an interview.
This is an act of extreme sacrifice for Singh, who is known for
 curt replies, or no replies, when reporters approach him at a 
tournament. But here he is, pleasant and well mannered. Then the 
interviewer asks about Fiji, and Singh’s shoulders pull back

“I’ve been asked a hundred times how I started golf,” he says,
 obviously reluctant to rehash what is, in fact, a pretty good
 tale. Is it because he anticipates the questions that must
 inevitably be asked? About Jakarta, 1985? The cheating 
allegation and his subsequent suspension from the Asian tour? 
His two years in exile as a club pro in the rain forests of
 Borneo? The Australian debts he took years to repay?

Singh couches his defensiveness in cliches. He says, “I like my
 clubs to do the talking.” Well, of course. Singh is comfortable
 with what his clubs say about him. They say he has won 
tournaments in Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and North
 America. They say that he has won three tournaments on the U.S.
 Tour in three years, that he was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in
 1993 and that he has climbed as high as 12th in the Sony World 
Ranking and is currently 17th. His tie for fifth in last week’s 
PGA was not his first close call in a major. He finished in a 
tie for sixth in the 1995 British Open and was 11th at Royal 
Lytham and St. Annes this year. He was fourth in the 1993 PGA
 and tied for seventh in this year’s U.S. Open.

“I don’t like to talk about my private life,” he says. “The
 media” — and here the exasperation shows on his face, the same
 look the prime minister displays when talking about Singh — “the 
media knows everything about a player.”


If only it were so. Actually, Singh is golf’s international man 
of mystery, a ball-bashing cipher with no deep friendships and
 an emotional life known only to his wife, Ardena, and son, Qass.
 Reporters, far from being intrusive, have written off the Fijian 
as bad copy — a boring man, a loner. Most profiles of Singh make
 no mention of his suspension by the Asian tour when he was 22.
 Those writers who do cite the cheating allegation usually print
without challenge Singh’s assertion that he did not, in fact,
 alter his scorecard to make the cut in the 1985 Indonesian Open
 but simply took the fall for “the son of an Indonesian VIP” who 
he says made the change.

Hardly anyone inquires as to why Singh has never represented 
Fiji in the annual World Cup of Golf. Asked why he hasn’t played
 for his home islands, Singh points to “some jealousy” among the
 selectors and says he was very hurt in 1993 when the Fiji PGA 
shunned him and chose two club pros who could barely break 80 at Lake Nona in Orlando. “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “Fiji is
 a poor country. There’s a lot of envy.”

Rabuka, on the other hand, insists Singh has never been 
available. According to the prime minister, all three golfing
 Singh brothers — Vijay, Krishna (who plays the Asian tour) and
 Mira (who this year opened a golf shop in Nadi, near the Singhs’
 hometown of Lautoka) — declined invitations to represent Fiji in
 the 1995 World Cup in China.

To comprehend this apparent estrangement between golfer and
 archipelago, one must know more about Singh and more about Fiji.
 The most relevant fact is that Singh is not an indigenousn 
Fijian, but a Fijian 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. Vijay’s father, Mohan Singh,
 was a refueler at the Nadi (pronounced NAN-di) International
 Airport, a busy passenger and cargo hub on the west coast of
 Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest and most populous island. Mohan Singh
was also an accomplished golfer, a nine-time club champion at 
the seaside Nadi Airport Golf Club.


The story that Vijay has tired of telling — the Singh legend — has 
him learning the game from his father on the scenic,
 rain-tree-dominated hills of the 18-hole airport course. The 
young Vijay jumped the airport fence after school and raced 
across the huge runway to the course, where he practiced and
 played for hours, usually alone. From the shade of a large mango
 tree by the 14th fairway he hit hundreds of balls a day, 
stopping only to grab a mango off a branch or drink from a
 nearby tap. At low tide he hit balls on the flat, firm sand of 
the beach, a good place to learn the crisp contact needed to
 spin the ball off Fiji’s water-grass fairways. At home the young
 Singh studied photographs of Sam Snead and Tom Weiskopf. “My 
brothers would go to the hotels and bars,” Singh recalls. “I
 would never do that, even when I was 15 or 16. Golf was what I

By the time he was 16, Singh was hitting his driver prodigious 
distances and winning island competitions. At 17 he was the 
Airport Club champion, Fiji amateur champion and owner of
 practically every other cup and medal the islands had to offer.
 “Vijay was cocky as all hell,” says Michael Lenz, the 
secretary-treasurer of the Fiji Golf Association, who ran events 
in the late ’70s in which Singh competed. “He used to sell the
prizes before he even played the tournament. He was that sure of

Tony Cooper, a former secretary-treasurer of the FGA who directs
 public relations for the Westpac Bank in Suva, remembers Vijay 
fondly — but with no illusions. “He was a bit of a villain in 
those days,” Cooper says with a chuckle. “He was raw, never been 
out of Fiji.”

Never, that is, until Cooper took the 17-year-old Singh and
 three other players to Pinehurst, N.C., for the 1980 World
 Amateur Team Championship. Vijay shot 84-80-80-81, and the
 Fijians did not fare especially well, finishing 123 strokes 
behind a U.S. team led by Hal Sutton, Bob Tway, Jim Holtgrieve
 and Jay Sigel. But the Fijians did beat Papua New Guinea for the
 first time, allowing them to claim the championship of the South
 Pacific. That had Cooper on cloud nine — until he got a bill from
 Pinehurst that showed Singh with $700 in charges for phone calls 
to Fiji. “There was no malice in it,” Cooper hastens to say.
” Vijay was a very young fellow, totally naive, always well
 mannered. But I had to break the news to his father, and his
 father had to pay the bill to get me off the hook.”


The lesson that Singh took away from Pinehurst, however, was not
 one of fiscal responsibility. His poor play, measured against
 that of the Americans, convinced him that he needed stiffer 
competition than Fiji could offer. So he set out in 1982 to play
 professional golf in Australia: not the big tournaments but the
 mini-tour events and pro-ams in dusty outback towns like 
Kalgoorlie and Alice Springs. By his own account Singh was not
 ready when he hit Australia. That may explain why, to get by, he
 put the touch on various golf officials and stuck numerous pro
shops with big phone bills. Cooper, visiting in New Zealand a 
couple of years later, met an officer of the Australian Golf
 Union whose eyes flashed when he heard the name Vijay Singh.
 “Well, every place he stayed he ran up these enormous bloody
 bills,” the official fumed.

“Vijay was banned from playing the PGA tour in Australia,” 
confirms Ray Graham, administrator of the South Pacific PGA. “He 
owed me money, and a lot of others, too. He was told he couldn’t
 play here again until those debts were settled.” It wasn’t so 
much the money, says Graham, but the seeming lack of gratitude.
 “He didn’t endear himself to people. Vijay wasn’t a boy who sent
 you a card or anything afterward.” Graham says that he and the
 others were finally repaid by Singh about four years ago.

Having been “given the flick” by Australia, Singh — now traveling 
with his wife-to-be, Ardena — moved on to the Asian tour. There,
 at 21, he won his first professional tournament, the 1984 
Malaysian PGA Championship. But his progress was halted in the
 second round of the 1985 Indonesian Open in Jakarta, where he 
was in a threesome with Canadian pro Jim Rutledge and Ruswin
 Ali, an Indonesian amateur who was keeping Singh’s score. The
tournament director of the Indonesian Golf Association, Rudy 
Lisapaly, ruled that Singh improved his score by one stroke
 before signing his card and was therefore disqualified. Edmund 
Yong, the secretary general of what was then called the
 Southeast Asia Golf Federation, notified Singh that he was
 indefinitely suspended from the Asian tour.

In recent years Singh has described the incident as a
”misunderstanding” and blamed Indonesian golf officials for
punishing him unfairly. Ardena, who is far more outgoing and
 spontaneous than her husband, takes the same line, saying that
 Vijay repeatedly wrote letters to Yong pleading his innocence
 but got no indication when the suspension might be lifted. “Now
 that Vijay’s somebody,” Ardena says with a hint of a smile, “Mr. 
Yong comes up and says, ‘Hello, how are you?'” She adds, “We are
 extremely courteous but very cold.”

Yong suffered a serious illness and cannot comment, but an 
American pro who played the Asian tour at the time contradicts
 Singh’s account. “I was there,” says the player, who asked not 
to be identified. “It was not a misunderstanding. Vijay was
 accused and suspended for altering his own card. All of us who
 were around are very upset that Vijay denies this.”

Graham says he always accepted the charge at face value, and not
 just because of his own experience with Singh. “That’s quite 
typical on that tour,” he says. “Players can’t count.” In Nadi,
 Brian Eastgate, the course superintendent at Denarau, describes
 the Asian golf culture as more tolerant of
 rules-stretching — like that of American baseball, for instance,
 where spitballs and corked bats are winked at. Says Eastgate, 
”Putting something over on your opponent is almost more 
important than the golf.”


In any event, the suspension from the Asian tour stopped Singh
 in his tracks. Casting about for a way to survive, he took a
 series of club-pro jobs in Borneo — the tournament player’s
 equivalent of Devil’s Island. Curiously, when Vijay and Ardena 
talk of this period of exile, they describe it as the happiest
 time of their lives. At Keningau, where Vijay gave lessons to 
lumberjacks and to truck drivers from a Shell Oil drilling 
operation, civilization and its discontents were 2 1/2 hours away
 on a dirt road. “You’d get up in the morning and hear the birds,
 the sounds of the jungle,” Vijay recalls. “Nothing to worry 
about. You had a roof over your head and something to eat. And
 we had each other. I learned a lot about life.”


At 500 Malaysian dollars a month — roughly $150 to $200 
U.S. — Borneo could have been a sentence of life. But Singh took
 advantage of the steamy hours between nine and three, when only
 mad dogs and Englishmen wanted lessons, to refine his game. To
 maintain his competitive edge, he played high-stakes handicap 
matches with timber tycoons and Shell executives, games that
 prepared him for the pressures of major championships.

On one occasion Singh played the last hole with $10 in his
 pocket and $700 on the line. “It was a par-5 where you had to
 hit over water to an island fairway,” he recalls. “Everything 
was riding on it, and I hit my drive OB. And the feeling I had
 when I stood over the next drive was the worst feeling I’ve ever 
had in the game. How would I pay if I lost? Would I lose my job? 
What would I tell my wife?” Despite the pressure, Singh found 
the fairway with his second ball and made eagle — a par, with the
 penalty — while his opponent dunked one in the water and made 7.
”So I won the hole and a lot of money. Now, whenever I’m in
 contention in a tournament, I think about that.” With a guilty 
smile, he adds, “I never told my wife, either.”

The story of how Singh escaped from paradise is somewhat less 
dramatic but illustrative of his determination. Hoping to
 qualify for the 1987 British Open, Singh arrived early and 
played Luffness, his qualifying course in Scotland, every day 
for a month. When that didn’t work out — he shot 75-70 and missed
 qualifying by eight strokes — he quit his job in Borneo and joined 
Africa’s Safari tour, playing tournaments in smoky, chaotic
 outposts like Nigeria’s Benin City, which he describes as 
”unbelievable, a Mad Max kind of place.” His victory in the 1988
Nigerian Open catapulted him to the top of the Safari tour money 
list, and by the end of the year he had won a Swedish tour event 
and tied for second at the European tour qualifying school. He
 won the Volvo Open in 1989, his rookie year in Europe, then four
 years later earned $657,831 in the U.S. while becoming the 
rookie of the year.

“It’s a great success story,” says Steve Cook, a former Asian 
tour player who now runs the South American tour. “I hear very 
nice things about Vijay today.” Graham describes the post-Borneo
 Singh as “a greatly transformed man” and gives credit to Ardena 
and the career shapers at International Management Group who 
signed Singh to a management contract in 1989. “He’s still a bit
 of a loner,” says Graham, “but you can’t blame him for that.”

Rabuka, who obviously has his differences with Singh, says he
 has “a lot of respect” for the golfer’s work ethic and praises
 him for boosting Fijian tourism. “Vijay’s a very easily
 misunderstood man because he’s so quiet and reserved,” the prime minister says. “People think he’s antisocial, and he’s not.”

Singh is not much concerned about the bridges he left burning in 
the Antipodes. The Australian debts were eventually paid, Graham
 says, but letters of remorse were never written. In Southeast
 Asia, meanwhile, resentment flares every time Singh casts
 himself as the victim in the Jakarta episode. “I think he’s been
 very stupid about that,” says Cooper, his old World Amateur Team
 coach. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Vijay just dropped a line and
 said, ‘I’ve done some silly things, and I’d like to make it
 good’? To my knowledge, he’s never cleaned the slate. He’s
 always had a chip on his shoulder about it.”

There is, of course, a larger context. The former British 
Commonwealth country that Singh left when he was 19 no longer
 exists, thanks to Rabuka and his armed cabal. Since 1990 the
 Fijian parliament has been gerrymandered along racial lines, 
with ethnic Fijians guaranteed a majority. Fijians of Indian 
extraction cannot hold the offices of president (a figurehead 
post) or prime minister (a Rabuka sinecure). What’s more, 
although Hinduism and Islam are accepted, the official religion
is Christianity, with Sunday laws enforced for everyone except
 tourists. Predictably, some 40,000 professional and middle-class
 Indians have voted with their passports since the coup. Singh’s 
mother, three brothers and one of his sisters now live in
 Australia. His father resides in New Zealand, and another sister 
lives in the U.K. Rabuka may be a congenial and approachable 
strongman, but he hews to a Fiji for Fijians course.


Singh, from a distance, has made comments on Fiji’s progress — or
 lack of it — that can be taken as unpatriotic or merely
 provocative, depending on one’s point of view. His beef with the 
media, he says, derives in part from the way his views are 
distorted by the time they reach the South Pacific. “I told Golf 
Digest I would not bring my son up in Fiji,” he says, “because
 it’s a different environment, there’s no opportunity now. It 
came out, Vijay doesn’t have any use for Fiji.” He grimaces.
”You wonder if you should talk to the press anymore.”

Fair or not, the gossip washing up on Viti Levu’s beaches gives
 many Fijians the impression that Singh is a haughty millionaire. 
In June a fledgling Fijian golf magazine, Top Shot, reprinted a
 Jacksonville columnist’s blistering critique of the
 media-dodging Singh — “a man with all the personality and pizzazz 
of a chicken potpie” — and left even his supporters at the Nadi
 Airport Golf Club shaking their heads. “Vijay’s a naughty boy,” 
says family friend Paras Naidu. “He shouldn’t ignore the media.
 He’s not that good.”

Every Singh misstep provides ammunition for those members of the 
Fiji PGA who don’t want him representing them in the World Cup.
 The prime minister insists that he, personally, wants Singh on 
the World Cup team, but others see racism and parochialism in 
the FPGA’s selections. “Three years ago it was sheer, pigheaded
 bigotry,” says the FGA’s Lenz. “The guy who was the head said,
 ‘We don’t want that Indian bastard representing us. We want
 Fijians.’ When Vijay got word of this, I think he said, ‘Why 

It’s clearly not just a case of Singh being difficult. The FGA 
put Singh’s name up twice for Fiji’s sportsman of the year, and
 each time the selection committee rejected his nomination,
 ostensibly because Singh was not a member of a local golf club.
 Two years ago Mohammed Aziz, president of the FGA and of Indian
 descent, offered to make Singh a lifetime member of the Nadi
 Airport Golf Club, but the sportsman of the year selectors still
 rejected the nomination.

And so the controversy devolves into farce. In June 1995,
 Krishna Singh announced that his brother would return to Fiji
 for just the second time in 16 years to play in a 
half-million-dollar skins game sanctioned by Rabuka and
televised by Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV. By January the purse had 
shrunk to $100,000 and television was no longer mentioned. In
 February, two days before the match, the Fiji Times ran a
 front-page photo of Vijay with his mother — Vijay Singh back
home — and reported that Vijay, Krishna, former PGA champion Wayne
 Grady and a local player would compete for $67,000.

By Friday — the day the prime minister hung a Commemorative 25th 
Independence Medal around Vijay’s neck at a $35-a-plate
 dinner — the purse had puckered to $50,000, and the local pros
 were grumbling that Krishna had made them pay an entrance fee to 
compete for the local pro slot and then asked them for an 
additional $10 to watch the skins game. (All but one of the
unsuccessful pros boycotted Denarau on Saturday.) The actual 
prize money turned out to be a mere $27,000, $22,000 of which
 was won by Vijay.


To make matters worse, an incident on the 14th hole had
 spectators clucking. With $14,000 on the line, Krishna had a
 putt for birdie from the fringe — that is, until Grady saw him 
nudge the ball with his foot. Embarrassed, Grady pointed out the 
infraction, at which point Krishna snatched up his ball and 
stalked off to the next tee.

Four months later, as he cooled off in the Denarau lounge, the
 prime minister was still peeved. “I don’t believe a professional
 could have that kind of ‘accident,'” Rabuka said, his voice 
heavy with sarcasm. And surely it didn’t help that Krishna had
 reneged on his promise to pay the FPGA $1,500 and that he had 
skipped the country without paying his $3,000 phone and fax bill 
at the Sheraton Fiji Resort. From Rabuka’s hangdog expression,
 one got the idea that being a dictator is no picnic these days.

Expatriates tend not to be nostalgic. So those in Fiji who
 wonder why Singh seems to have forgotten them should consider 
that his best friend, when he was a boy, was a mango tree. Even 
now he can conjure up only two names when asked which Tour
 players know him well — Jim Thorpe and Jesper Parnevik.

It would be a stretch to say that Singh doesn’t care where he 
lives, but his sense of place is circumscribed by his practice 
needs: Paradise is a 350-yard-long range with a private tee at
 the far end, away from the chatterboxes and glad-handers. (“It’s
 mindless,” 1995 PGA champ Steve Elkington says of Singh’s 
practice sessions. “He just hits his driver all day.”) For
 solace and support Singh has only Ardena, and she admits she
 sometimes wonders “when he’s going to sow that wild oat. It
 isn’t possible for a man to be satisfied with just two things” — i.e., a wife and golf.

“Golf has been a gift to me,” Singh said at Ponte Vedra Beach,
 where the muggy summer afternoons must remind him of Nadi.
” Without golf, my loneliness would not have allowed me to 
succeed.” And Viti Levu, he acknowledged, provided the
 tranquillity that made his development possible. “It’s a
 beautiful island. It’s my home.”

But not really, not anymore. Not with his family gone and ethnic
 prejudice the law of the land. Fiji, as Singh sees it, is a
 palm-strewn hideaway where the clock runs 120 minutes to the 
hour and cows stand in the roads. “The water’s blue,” he says,
”and you spend a week there.”

Or less than a week, if you’re Vijay Singh — a man who seems to 
have become an island unto himself.

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