LOS ANGELES – Go ahead. Try to figure out Vijay Singh.
He is a World Golf Hall of Famer who blanches at fame. He’s a 34-time PGA Tour champion who skulks through tournaments with little fanfare.
The man is a walking enigma. He appears wholly unburdened yet forever bothered, peacefully tranquil yet armed with a permanent chip on his shoulder. He remains a rare combination of popular and mysterious that fused together creates a blend of notorious not often found in golf’s demure culture.
Not that he cares what we think. Or maybe he cares so much that he does his damndest to prove to us just how much he doesn’t care. It’s hard to know the difference.
That’s because all of these are observations from afar. When Singh does speak publicly – a limited occurrence in itself these days – he employs an economy of words. The topic never veers from his overall game or a specific performance. He is a master of saying something without saying anything at all.
Following an opening-round 5-under 66 at the Northern Trust Open on Thursday that gave him a share of the overnight lead, Singh offered an explanation dripping with literalities.
“I kept my ball in play, hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens and when I did miss, I chipped it real close,” he said. “It was a comfortable round.”
In his defense, he wasn’t asked the tough questions on this day. We’ve been there, done that.
We’ve asked him the questions about the long-ago cheating accusation when he was a young pro. About the perception that he’s been underappreciated as one of the world’s best players of the past quarter-century. About the ongoing litigation he’s taken against the PGA Tour, accusing the organization of public humiliation and ridicule after releasing the results of an investigation into whether he used a banned substance.
It’s that last one which might be the genesis of Singh’s increased detachment in recent years.
At least, that’s the theory of one man who knows him well.
Retief Goosen has shared a Presidents Cup team room with Singh, battled him down the stretch in tournaments and played with him more times than either of them can remember. On what amounted to Throwback Thursday at Riviera Country Club, they were paired once again, with Goosen matching his playing partner’s 66 to keep pace atop the leaderboard.
After the round, Goosen alluded to the lawsuit without directly mentioning it. He implied that it’s affected Singh more than most of us realize.
“The last couple of years, since what’s happened, has probably drained him a little bit,” Goosen presumed. “Vijay wasn’t as chirpy as he normally would be on the golf course today, because he does have quite a sarcastic sense of humor. He seems a little bit down on himself at the moment, but it didn’t affect his game today, which is good.
“I don’t know. But I think he probably feels at the moment like everybody is against him for no real reason. I think what’s still going on is really working on him. He’s doubting himself and his game and his attitude. He’s not as happy-chappy as he used to be.”
Singh may have never seemed overly “happy-chappy” to those of us watching him from afar, but it speaks volumes that his legal battle has robbed him of that demeanor inside the friendly confines of the field of play.
As he lumbered off the 18th green on Thursday, following a routine two-putt par to finish his round, Singh was still wearing his best poker face. It’s the same one he’s been wearing for years, concealing whether he was delighted by his performance or frustrated or somewhere in between.
He will turn 52 years old on Sunday and would like no better present than to win for the first time in seven years. Actually, that’s what we assume. But we really don’t know. We only know what he’ll reveal, which so far has included such insights as, “The golf swing feels good,” and “I'm happy to be playing,” and “You're not going to win it on Thursday.”
As he says these words, we’re right to wonder what he’s really thinking, what veiled concepts are buried under that hardened exterior. Chances are, we’ll never know. He answers a few more questions about his game, then lumbers away, the walking enigma still leaving us guessing.