The year of breakthrough for Indian golfers
On a fine November morning, the DLF Golf Course in Delhi was in full bloom with poinsettias, resplendent like a garland around a lake. By its side, on a well-manicured green, India’s young golf sensation Aditi Ashok coolly sank a putt that marked her maiden win—the Hero Women’s Indian Open—on the Ladies European Tour (LET).
For India’s national women’s tournament, this was an appropriate celebration of its 10th year. Aditi also won the Qatar Ladies Open just the fortnight after, securing her title as the Rookie of the Season on the women’s international tour and also cementing her place as an icon for women’s golf in India.
The last 30 days have been special for Indian golf. Gaganjeet Bhullar picked up two titles in four weeks in Asia. S.S.P. Chawrasia won the Resorts World Manila Masters in Asia, his first on foreign soil though he has won European Tour events in India earlier. Anirban Lahiri had near-wins on multiple occasions.
There is a strong case for golfing talent in the country—not one that has shooting stars but a protracted, planned and definitive pool of players who have a global edge. Upcoming players like Bengaluru-based S. Chikkarangappa and Khalin Joshi are also carving rightful spots on the Asian Tour. Early 2000 stalwarts like Jeev Milkha Singh and Jyoti Randhawa were seen displaying bits of brilliance this year—Randhawa nearly won the Manila Masters last month, while Singh was tied in the lead with Bhullar during the BNI Indonesian Masters, also in November.
Aditi shot into the limelight in August when the 18-year-old was in the leader mix at the Rio Olympics. She rounded off that week with a card of five-over 76 to wrap her campaign with the 41st spot.
With the win at the inaugural Qatar event, she is likely to have (nearly) secured her spot in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in the US for which she is already headed to play at the qualifying school this week.
“It’s been a great few weeks. To win back-to-back events feels really good,” says Aditi, the LET’s leading rookie professional. Her biggest asset, some would say, is her temperament.
Kapurthala’s Bhullar made a stellar return to the game after a two-year hiatus. He has moved to the US to sort out his game. The seven-time winner on the Asian Tour bounced back from a wrist injury he sustained in 2014 by winning the 2016 Shinhan Donghae Open in Korea (29 September-2 October) and clinching the BANK BRI-JCB Indonesia Open (17-20 November) title for the second time in his career.
“I’m working hard on my game by spending a lot of time in driving range,” he says.
Lahiri worked upon his 2015 lead, a season in which he topped the Order of Merit in Asia thanks to wins at the Maybank Malaysian Open and Hero Indian Open in a span of three weeks in February. He capped that season, finishing fifth at the PGA Championships, the best ever by an Indian golfer in a Major tournament. The year 2016 wasn’t dotted with wins but close.
This year has been strong in parts, with Lahiri finishing third at the CIMB Classic in October and 76th in world rankings.
Jeev Milkha Singh showed he still has plenty of fuel left in the tank. At 44, the Indian golf legend has won 14 titles but none since 2012. Singh, who recently led at the Indonesia Open alongside Bhullar, continued to show that he can still compete at the highest level. His tied-second result is his best finish since winning in Scotland in 2012.
“It is good to see these young kids doing well. Obviously, I want to compete with them. In fact, they push me to do better. They hit good and long drives and I want to keep up with them. Age is just a number,” he says.
Most of these players junk the theory of elitism associated with the sport—for many, the connection to golf is through the armed forces or Railways, and for some, simply practising by the edge of the course when others had finished.
For example, 38-year-old Shammim Khan, who has been a pro since 1995, won the Rs1 crore CG Open trophy on 26 November. He grew up on the edges of Delhi Golf Club.
Junior golf in India is also proving the elitist hypothesis wrong. Young prodigy Shubham Jaglan learnt his game on a tasla (a metal bowl in which cement is carried by construction labourers) in a village where golf club-like sticks were used for farming and harvesting. Jaglan was supported by the golf foundation that also fostered homegrown players like Rashid Khan and Chikkarangappa.
It’s only the lack of facilities that remain a challenge. Golf great Gary Player once said to Golfingindian.com in a video interview: “The difference between India and America is the facilities. Golf facilities in the US give ample opportunities for kids to take up golf. While in India, most of the parents only think of medals. However, in the Western countries there is no pressure on kids to win medals.”
India’s top players have proved that despite all odds, they can put sport on course and then master it to win globally.
Shaili Chopra is the founder of Golfingindian.com and India Golf Awards.