What's the half-life of embarrassment? What's a fair sentence for a youthful indiscretion? These are two of the questions raised by the success of Vijay Singh. When he won the Masters last month, reporters couldn't bring themselves to ask Singh direct questions about his suspension for cheating on the Asian tour in 1985. "This is not a murder mystery, where you go and dig up all the facts and investigate it," Singh said in response to an oblique query at Augusta about his two years of exile as a teaching pro in Borneo. "That part of my life is disappointing and heartbreaking, and I just want to leave it alone."
If Singh's past is not a mystery, you would never know it from much of what has been written recently. Golf magazines and newspapers have referred to "allegations" of cheating in Singh's background. Here in GOLF PLUS, two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els faulted SI for bringing up what he called "an unsubstantiated allegation about an event that may or may not have occurred 15 years ago."
You can't fault Els for defending a friend, but the media waffling is historical revisionism. There is nothing alleged or unsubstantiated about the fact that the Southeast Asia Golf Federation suspended Singh indefinitely for altering his scorecard in the second round of the '85 Indonesian Open in Jakarta. It's also a fact that Singh was banned from playing the Australian PGA circuit—not for cheating but for failing to pay off loans and long-distance phone bills.
I know these things to be true because I checked them out for a 1996 feature story on Singh. I went to his homeland of Fiji and interviewed the club members who watched him learn the game on the watergrass fairways of the Nadi Airport Golf Club. I talked to golf officials in Australia and Southeast Asia. I interviewed the Indonesian Golf Association official who ruled that Singh had improved his score in Jakarta by a stroke—just enough to make the cut—before signing his card. I reviewed the incident with Asian tour players of the time, including the Canadian pro who played with Singh that day. "It was not a misunderstanding," said an American player who was there. "All of us who were around are very upset that Vijay denies this."
On the other hand almost everyone I talked to pointed out that it was another time, another place-almost another Vijay. Singh was 22 when he got caught in Jakarta. He was cocky, immature and steeped in a culture of gamesmanship. Three years later, when he won tournaments in Nigeria and Sweden and qualified to play on the European tour, he was a quite different fellow, serious, disciplined, remote and honest. Singh has played hundreds of tournaments since taking his punishment, and his record is unblemished. Asked if he can recall a single instance in which Singh was accused or even suspected of stretching the rules, veteran PGA Tour rules official Wade Cagle says, "Not in any way, shape or form. He's been a perfect gentleman."
Meanwhile, a number of big-name Tour players have been accused, fairly or unfairly, of cheating. Greg Norman charged Mark McCumber with doctoring the line of a putt at the '95 NEC World Series of Golf. Jarmo Sandelin denounced Mark O'Meara for inching his ball closer to the hole after marking it at the '97 Troph�e Lanc�me in France. Television viewers snitched on Paul Azinger when he mindlessly pawed a creek bed at the '91 Doral-Ryder Open, thereby improving his stance.
These days all you can accuse Singh of is brilliance. Since 1989 he has won seven European tour events, seven tournaments in the U.S., eight Presidents Cup matches and two majors, the '98 PGA and now the Masters. He has also, over time, won the friendship of many of his Tour colleagues. When they need a swing tip, a practice-round partner or a reminder of what hard work can do, they go to Vijay. Yet the cloud of Jakarta hangs over Singh. At the Masters, a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team dismissed the Fijian with the flip remark, "Once a cheater, always a cheater."
All the evidence, however, points the other way. If I were a judge, I would order that Vijay's juvenile record be sealed. Then I would rush out and buy tickets to next month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Singh will go after stage two of the Grand Slam.
The mystery is not what did or did not happen in Vijay's distant past. The mystery now is why Singh doesn't get the respect he deserves for 15 years of great golf and honest play.