I have a soft corner for women’s golf. Now, before you jump to conclusions, let me explain. Some of my first casual lessons in golf were from the wonderfully sweet Asha Sehgal, whose strikingly frail frame belied her zest for life. She would swing the club with unhurried grace and the ball would almost never leave the fairway. She had won over the mischievous little orb with her charm, as she had almost anybody who got to know her.
So there I was, being initiated into the game, and she would say, “Son, watch me and do what I do.” Easier said than done. In my pre-teens, graduating towards obnoxiousness, I would take big swipes at the ball, with ugly results. Learning was painfully slow but Sehgal wasn’t one to give up.
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A few weeks ago, I came across a 17-year-old hitting a golf ball, and this was different from all those years before. The way she wound up her little body and unleashed the pent-up energy into the poor thing sitting on the turf was staggering. Small in size, but not short on confidence. Vani Kapoor wants to be a professional golfer and she’s making the right moves. Walking with her at the links-style Golden Greens in Gurgaon, I asked if she preferred a natural layout to the parkland variety like the DLF Golf and Country Club, her home ground. She looked at me and said: “You know, I’ve never really thought about that. I just walk on to a golf course, try and shoot the best score I can.”
Blinkers on, no time for the birds and the flowers here. India’s best amateur outdid the top pros in the country by 10 shots in a tour event at the Golden Greens Golf Club, Gurgaon, earlier this year. Then, the other day, I witnessed the Women’s Indian Open at the DLF, a $300,000 (around Rs 1.59 crore) joint effort between the European, Asian and Indian tours. I ran into Simi Mehra, the Kalpana Chawla of women’s pro golf in India. At age 14, Mehra came across a photograph of the legendary Latino Nancy Lopez and decided she wanted to be a golfer. In 1997, 11 years later, she made it to the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and who did she run into at a tournament in Hawaii?… “My locker is right next to hers. She walks up to me and says, ‘Hi, I’m Nancy Lopez.’ I had arrived.”
Known as the longest hitter in women’s golf at one time, Mehra has had her share of injuries and, more recently, putting issues. “I would much rather be known for my putting now,” she says wryly. “I’m getting back and I’m going to win the British Open one of these days,” she says, rather convincingly.
Around six years ago, Champika Sayal, a leading amateur in her days, roped in Mehra and set up the Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI). Six events worth Rs 1 lakh each, with as many players, is how they started. Today, the WGAI, backed by real estate firm DLF Ltd and now Pawan Munjal’s Hero Group, has 15 events, with Rs 42 lakh on offer, and around 15-odd golfers.
Progress is slow and women’s golf is never going to be a big numbers game, says Nonita Lall Qureshi, the country’s best amateur for many years, a sought-after coach and also the vice-president (invitee) of WGAI. “It’s hard to change the Indian mindset and then there are at least two big breaks in our lives. One when we get married and then when we have a baby. You look at any golfer brother-sister combo and both get different treatment. While the parents pursue the son’s career vigorously, the girl is basically humoured.”
Bangalore-based Surekha Nicollet, a single mother, is defying convention when it comes to her girl child, with spectacular results. When Sharmila hits a golf ball, it stays hit. So do you, when you see her. Super-quick hands, you catch a blur of red nail paint as she swings through the ball. Our answer to Álvaro Quirós, only ours is much better looking. The 6ft Indo-French product gets “cheesy” pickup lines all the time, and no discrimination here, they come from boys, men, women. Sharmila Nicollet, 20, is the complete package.
India’s top pro, Nicollet intends to get out of her “comfort zone” and play the Ladies European Tour (LET) Qualifying School at La Manga Club in Spain in January. Five years from now, she’s thinking the Olympics, her own fashion line and maybe even a perfume, given the family’s perfumery business.
With quality on the upswing, Sayal, the WGAI’s secretary general, is turning her attention to numbers, trying to introduce rural women to golf, as caddies to start with. She recently managed to convince 17 girls from a village in Delhi’s neighbourhood to visit the Delhi Golf Club and they came with their mothers, who were so taken in that they volunteered too. Imagine that!
If Sayal manages to pull this off, it’s going to give Indian golf a new dimension. A welcome one.
Prabhdev Singh is the founding editor of Golf Digest India, and a part-time golfer.
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