Vijay Singh: Finally Figured It Out

I don’t know what it was that attracted me to Vijay Singh’s name when I was looking at the list of the field Wednesday for the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. I take that back, I do know.

I’ve been following Singh for years because of his unhurried, stylish swing. The first time I saw him play was in the 1993 Tour Championship played at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. It was his first year on Tour and I picked him out of the lineup on the range.

For some reason, I still have a visual image of catching a glimpse of him hitting an approach shot into a green on the back nine. There was something about that swing against the backdrop of the tall cypress trees, the sunlight through the trees, the lushness of the course itself. And I couldn’t tell you what happened to the shot itself, for me it was all about that swing.

As his career began to flourish — he had his first million dollar year in 1995 — I continued to marvel at his skill in playing the game. For me, he was an aesthetic of the PGA Tour; I always watched for him.

And somewhere in there, in an effort to get better, his reputation as a range rat begin to grow. The guy was always working on his swing. And then it went from that to grueling sessions of working on his swing. And then it went from that to that as the norm; the guy would invest himself completely in these perpetual, grueling practice sessions.

He had the appearance of a stoic, his concentration was so passive, but engrossed. He started to gain a reputation as one of the helpful guys out there. If you were having trouble with your swing and needed to get an authoritative opinion, Vijay was the guy to ask; he was said to be reliably generous.

Why would he do that? Why would he give away his secrets to his fellow competitors?

The first reason is that, like most of us, he has a generous spirit. The second reason is probably something to do with being proud of what he had discovered and wanting to demonstrate his proficiency to others. And the third is that he surely realized that someone telling you the secrets is not the same as being able to own them yourself.

What it takes to move a Tour-quality swing from one place to another is weeks and months of beating balls and that’s just to get the change. You still have to demonstrate its mastery on the course in practice rounds…and then in tournaments…and tournaments…and tournaments.

Anyway, he had an increasingly successful career earning $10.9 million in 2004 alone. But as he’s moved through his forties, he’s started to slip a little. He had a couple of years when he “only” made a little over a million, but in 2011 he roared back with $2.7 million.

In 2012 he’s struggled a little, but his first round today holds hope; at 3-under, he’s one stroke out of the lead (Bo Van Pelt) and shared some thoughts about how his game is now:

How do you feel you played today?

I played well.  I hit a lot of good shots, made a lot of birdies, and finally I made a couple of putts, which I guess is the key to playing good golf is you’ve got to make putts, and I did that.

It is really interesting when a truly accomplished player shares what he was thinking during the course of his round. He chipped in on one hole and was asked if that was a boost to his round:

I was already 3‑under.  It kind of got me excited there.  I thought I was going to go out and really shoot a low one, and then I bogeyed three in a row after that.  You’ve got to be patient.  You’ve got to keep calm out there. I gathered myself and made some more birdies (two) coming in.

All in all, I played really nicely, and I’m playing good golf.

So when you have some hiccups like that, the reflex response is typically to try to “fix” something. He was asked what that would be:

I don’t think I need to tweak anything.  I just need to go out there and do the same thing and stop missing those greens with 8‑ and 9‑irons, which I did twice today.  If I can get that under control, I think I can do well.

Some pretty solid wisdom there: don’t try to fix anything, just keep playing.

But there is one area he’s identified that could use a little attention:

…Last year I was kind of 160 something [in putting], last week I was 174.  I said I need to improve my putting, I need to improve my short game, and I changed putters this week, and it’s helped a little bit.  I need to work more on my putts than anything else.

And then, given Singh’s reputation as a range rat but not much when it came to practicing his putting, an excellent question that got to the heart of the sort of epiphany he’s going through:

How does it compare working on your putting trying to improve that aspect of the game as opposed to where we normally see you on the range trying to improve your long game?

Well, my theory was if I get it close enough I don’t need to putt.  It doesn’t work after a while.  But if I putt well, everything else gets easier.  You don’t have that much pressure on yourself to hit close shots.  That’s the key.  I should know.  When I putt well, I know what I can do.

So there you have it all tied up in one simple paragraph:

  • a career’s playing philosophy
  • recognition of the error in his thinking
  • identification of the problem
  • a wistful assertion that he should have known better, and then
  • an optimistic look forward from the perspective of his past experience

So I will be watching to see if this great player is able to get control of his game and get himself back up in the World Rankings (he’s 91st this week). That should keep him on the PGA Tour at least a couple of years

And then it will be time to gracefully take his game on to the Champions Tour.


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