OFF THE PLATE: SEPTEMBER 2008
Editor's Note: The following article was summarized in the Fiji Times Online.
(Sept. 7, 2008)—It looks like Vijay Singh may finally be the headline this time. Singh is on the verge of winning the PGA FedExCup playoffs. He's won two of the last three qualifying events and has built a nearly insurmountable lead in the FedEx points standings. After his first two victories this year (the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in August, and the Barclays) the headlines were about how Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia lost those tournaments respectively. In the Los Angeles Times, Vijay's Bridgestone victory wasn't even a story, but a note buried in a short report about Eduardo Romero winning the U.S. Senior Open.
Singh's victories often seem to be qualified successes according to the sports media. The only time he received significant attention was when he created a flap by publicly objecting to Annika Sorenstam being granted an exemption to play in the men's Colonial tournament in 2005. He was vilified as a sexist. Granted Annika's entry was highlight moment in golf. The furor over Vijay's comments, however, overshadowed the compelling biography that shaped his opinions in the first place.
No one has had to overcome as many obstacles to reach the pinnacle of golf as Vijay Singh. Born into a poor family in Fiji, he grew up in a family of five living in a small cramped apartment where everyone slept in the same room. He learned to play golf on a barren course with dirt putting “greens.” Local businessmen recognized his talent and paid for his way off-island to Australia. But it turned out his “sponsors” left him high-and-dry with no money to support himself. Vijay stood out for playing in tournaments having to wear the same pair of pants for a week or using just one golf ball for an entire tournament. He carried his own bag to save money. Eventually he earned his tour card, but was confronted with a racist backlash as many clubs would not allow him to use their facilities. He made the Asian Tour and won his first tournament in Malaysia in 1984. Shortly after, he signed an incorrect scorecard in a tournament in Indonesia that improved his score by a stroke. The tour immediately banned him for cheating. He appealed, claiming it was an honest mistake, but never heard back from the Asian Tour.
Singh overcame other hurdles to make the European and ultimately the PGA tours. He has never looked back, becoming one of the winningest players on the PGA. He also had a breakout year in 2004 when he won 9 tournaments and set a tour record by earning more than $10 million. By year's end, he was the number-one-ranked player in the world—one of only two players to wrest this title from Tiger Woods (the other being David Duval). To Vijay, Sorenstam's 2005 exemption to play in the Colonial was a media circus and a slap in the face to the golfers grinding it out to get a shot on the tour, while Annika was making millions on the LPGA. Maybe not a popular political view, but it certainly makes sense if seen from the perspective of someone who many times had to overcome incredible odds to earn his way to the top level.
Vijay's wife, Ardena, has been one of his most ardent supporters, at times caddying for him or offering advice on his game. Singh can also been seen from time to time playing father-and-son tournaments with his son Qass. The Singhs are renowned as a close-knit family. And although he may not be a media darling, Vijay certainly seems popular with many players on tour, earning the respect and friendship of a number of them.
I have been a big fan of Vijay's for years, partly because we share a Pacific Island heritage (my family being from Guam in Micronesia), but also because professional golf is still very much a rich white man's sport. In this environment, Vijay is always the underdog. Like Tiger, his accomplishments must be exceptional to be recognized. I find myself getting frustrated at tournament coverage when the cameras will follow people like Phil Mickelson incessantly even when he is playing poorly, but will only cut to Vijay when he tops the leaderboard. One has to wonder if the U.S. sports media establishment can handle more than one man of color at the top of the pro golf world.
Even if he doesn't win this week's tournament, Vijay is probably going to win the FedEx playoffs. More than likely his success will be recorded with an asterisk. Tiger is out for the year recovering from knee surgery, and critics are already complaining the FedEx scoring system has taken the drama out of the playoffs. But maybe the sports media can settle back and, for a moment at least, take advantage of the opportunity to appreciate another one of the greats of our time.
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