Sharmila Nicollet first picked up a golf club at the age of 12. She accompanied her cousins to a golfing camp at the Karnataka Golf Association, Bangalore, swung the club around a bit, liked it and began taking golfing lessons. She proceeded to win her first amateur tournament at the age of 15 in 2006, winning by 15 strokes.
“The day I began playing golf, I knew this was the game for me,” says Bangalore-based Nicollet, 20. “The physical and mental discipline that it demands made me choose it as a career.”
At the recently concluded fifth leg of the Hero Women’s Professional Golf Tour at the Golden Greens Golf and Country Resort, Gurgaon, Nicollet overcame initial hiccups to card the second best overall round of the tournament and finished third. She is no stranger to success on the tour, having topped its order of merit for 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Stars in the making: Nicollet (left) and Bal. Photo by Monika Tiwary
Delhi-based Meghna Bal, 22, detested the game when she first held a golf club at age 13. But the same year, she began warming up to the sport. The change came when she flew to South Africa with her father during the summer break—a trip spent “playing golf and eating”, as she likes to remember it.
She registered her first amateur victory at the Western India Ladies Amateur tournament at the age of 15. She also surprised everyone by finishing third at the DLF Women’s Indian Open, 2007, an event on the Asian Tour calendar, while still an amateur. But she considers the 2006 Doha Asian Games the high point of her career, where she scored an 11 under par and finished in the top 10.
“I fed off the energy of the players I saw in Doha,” she says. “It was an experience to see some of the players you admire doing what they do best with such focus.”
For Nicollet, the Doha experience was quite the opposite. She confesses to having been overwhelmed by the presence of the athletes she had admired for a long time, which ended up affecting her performance at the event.
Nicollet and Bal are two promising players among a bunch of 24 professionals who are trying to make a mark in the very young sport of Indian women’s golf—the Women’s Tour here is just five years old. And they have a long, challenging journey ahead.
Nicollet turned professional in July 2009 and began appearing on the Asian Tour in 2010. Her first professional tournament on the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) tour saw her finishing 10th at the Thai LPGA in 2009. She has also played in the prestigious Queen Sirikit Cup in Japan in 2008. The Indian Golf Union Ladies’ section declared her the Lady Golfer for 2007.
“I’m often busy with tournaments for weeks on end, which hardly leaves me with room for anything else. I had to shift schools since the ICSE curriculum demanded too much of my time, which I only wanted to devote to golf,” she says. She is studying for a psychology degree from Annamalai University now.
Bal is over this hump: “My mother was sure I would flunk in my class XII board exam. But when I scored over 90% in the exam, both of us knew that academics would never really be a problem for me.”
“I am working hard on my long game, driving and all,” says Bal. “I’m aware that my strength lies in putting, pitching and hitting from the bunkers.”
Nicollet is one of the longest drivers on the Indian Ladies’ Tour, a fact that has been noticed and lauded by British professional golfer Laura Davies, a legend, and one of the longest hitters of the golf ball in the world. She met Davies at the age of 16, partnering her for a tournament, learning and picking up tips and pointers all the while.
“When I played the Evian Masters in Europe earlier this year (she received a wild card entry for the tournament), I noticed that what set the other players apart was their short game. I have been working on my putting ever since,” Nicollet says.
She hopes to compete on the European Tour next year before proceeding to the LPGA tour in the US when she feels she is ready. She considers the better quality of opposition on foreign tours an important factor in eventually going for the American and European tours.
“A score of 5 over par can fetch you a pretty good result in India,” she says. “On other tours, it would get you nothing. While the Indian men’s tour has over a hundred players, only a handful of women battle it out for the prize on this tour.”
Bal, having turned professional only this year, says that once she attunes herself better to the Indian tour, she plans to move on to either the European or Japanese tours.
Nicollet believes that players on the tour find it difficult to travel for tournaments because “the expenses come into lakhs”. Yet, going into the sixth leg of the Hero Women’s Professional Golf Tour, which started on Wednesday at the DLF Golf Country Club in Gurgaon, she is hopeful about the future. “The winning scores are now in the range of 8 and 9 under par. Give this tour five more years, and we will produce golf’s Saina (Nehwal) for you,” she says.