Thursday, July 6, 2006

Vijay Singh, professional golf’s perceived Darth Vader, giggles like a schoolgirl at the revelation — his high-pitched laughter almost as surprising as the news he has just received: His peers have tabbed him in a landslide as the PGA Tour’s top needler, golf’s Duke of Dig.

“Oh, it’s not like that, is it, Paulie?” Singh says, turning to his caddie, Paul Tesori. “I don’t give guys any cheek, do I?”

Tesori simply rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, you know you do. I can’t believe you’re trying to deny it. You love it.”

The three-time major champion throws his head back and emits another round of hyena-like peals of laughter.

“I didn’t know it was like that, that so many guys would pick me,” Singh says while studying a survey that shows that he received votes from 13 of the 50 players polled and finished nearly 40 percent ahead of runner-up rip artist Jeff Sluman (eight votes). “I don’t know if that’s flattering or not, but I guess it’s who I am, bro. I just like joking with the guys.”


No sport lends itself to good-natured ribbing like golf. The game’s leisurely pace practically demands conversation between competitors and provides massive windows of opportunity for gamesmanship and witty repartee. Any member of a regular weekend foursome can attest to the sport’s high smart-aleck quotient.

The nature of life on tour unquestionably encourages the needler within. In some respects, the PGA Tour is little more than the world’s ultimate mobile fraternity. Players spend hours each day in the locker room, on the range, on the practice tee and on the course in the company of extremely close acquaintances, who, on the ultimate level, are also rivals and competitors. Such an environment fosters an almost palpable spirit of one-upmanship.

“It’s kind of weird when you’re a rookie because there’s a constant back-and-forth between the veterans, and it all seems like inside jokes,” says Bubba Watson, a newcomer who leads the PGA Tour in driving distance. “It’s almost like the older guys are too nice, sort of formal. I’ve been told you know you’ve been accepted as part of the fraternity out here when guys start ribbing you.”

In a world in which the needling never ends, those with the sharpest tongues, quickest wits and most uncanny timing achieve almost reverential status. After all, everyone on tour can play golf. But only a select few have mastered the game of gotcha.

“Needling is an art form,” says 25-year PGA Tour veteran Paul Azinger, who tied with Tiger Woods and John Huston in the survey. “There’s a great skill to doing it properly because you don’t really want to hurt somebody. A good cut never leaves a scar. Frankly, I’d like to give all the votes I got to John Huston because I don’t belong in the same sentence with that guy. He’s a professional, man. That dude is funny. And he never crosses the line.”

So how about an example?

“We’re playing a few years back, I think at the Sony [Open], and I hit this chip a little thin,” Azinger says. “It wasn’t crazy thin, and I’m pretty sure nobody in the gallery noticed, but it would probably have gone like 15 feet past the hole. Anyway, it hits the pin and goes in. The crowd goes crazy. Huston doesn’t say a word, doesn’t even look at me. On the next tee, I’ve got the honor. And as I’m teeing up, John casually says, ‘By the way, ‘Zinger, did you catch that chip on one groove or two?’ That’s vintage Huston, the true master.”

In general, there seem to be two distinct schools of needling. Most veterans hold the subtle school in highest regard, acknowledging Fred Couples, Huston, Azinger and runner-up Sluman as its most accomplished practitioners.

“Sluman is the best, without a doubt — it’s not even close,” 23-year tour vet Brad Faxon says. “He’s very sarcastic and dry. And he’s more intelligent than most guys out here. He’s kind of like Dennis Miller in a way because he’ll say something and most guys won’t get it. Or if they do, it will be a couple of beats too late for a comeback. You have to be pretty smart to know ‘Slu’ is even needling you.”

Then there’s the more blatant school of needling preferred by players like Singh, Woods and Australia’s Mark Hensby.

At last year’s British Open, Hensby trailed Woods by one stroke after the opening round at St. Andrews. Woods, oozing intensity in pursuit of his second Slam title of the season, was completely immersed in his practice session as Hensby was leaving the range after an impressive day’s work. Not the least bit intimidated by Woods’ focus, Hensby plucked a range ball from the back of the practice ground, scribbled something on it with his Sharpie and tossed it the 25 yards to Woods’ feet.

Tiger looked at the ball, laughed out loud, tossed it aside with a wink at the Aussie and then resumed his practice session. When Woods was finished, an inquisitive reporter rushed out to Woods’ station to retrieve the ball. On it were scrawled two letters: the sixth letter of the alphabet followed by a “U.”

Given their similar penchant for brusque humor, perhaps it’s no surprise Hensby and Singh are best mates.

“Vijay gets my vote, though he’s certainly on the border between needler and smart [aleck],” says Stuart Appleby, whom Ernie Els tapped as his top dig artist. “Vijay is definitely the guy who would surprise most golf fans because he’s really very funny. He isn’t always real subtle, however, and he’s certainly not afraid to step on your toes.”

The golf world was treated to a clear example of Singh’s blunt sense of humor at the 2000 Presidents Cup, when Singh allowed Tesori to wear a cap embroidered with the bold challenge “Tiger Who” on its back. Woods was not amused, and he responded by besting Singh (2 & 1) in an intensity-charged Sunday singles match.

“You’ve got to understand that when you’re talking about Tiger and Vijay and Phil, you’re talking about three dogs fighting over the same hydrant,” says Olin Browne, a District native and 20-year vet. “Though he’s not the most subtle, Vijay’s got serious skills. He has talent. I don’t think there’s anything vindictive about him. But when Vijay has a go at Tiger or Phil, he’s probably not worried if he cuts a little deeper.”

Perhaps it’s this combination of blunt honesty and temerity that has earned Singh an unfavorable reputation among golf fans. Few will ever forget his salvo at Annika Sorenstam before her run at the 2003 Colonial, when Singh conceded he was hoping she would miss the cut.

But among his peers, Singh isn’t just respected; he’s almost universally well-liked. Frankly, it’s a shame more golf fans aren’t exposed to the Fijian’s formidable wit and lithe-minded, mischievous bent.

“You don’t actually interact with the public, so they have no idea about your true personality,” Singh says. “What are you going to do? These guys out here, my extended family, they know I love a good laugh.”

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