Aditi Ashok’s performance in the recently concluded Rio Olympics, which saw her in medal contention for two out of four days, highlighted why India needs to review a sport like golf. It’s also a good cue for introspection on how we approach sports that are yet to become popular in the country.
Aditi, 18, was the youngest golfer in the field, and having turned pro less than a year ago, her performance was commendable—she finished 41st but stayed in the top 8 in the first two rounds. She is realistic about her assessment: “I started well, but I wish I could have done better on the last couple of days. I hope my game helps grow golf in India.”
The country is already analysing what makes an Olympian and why we didn’t win more medals. Are we chasing a philosophy of success without experience? Are we breeding a culture of geniuses instead of growth, which focuses on creating stars rather than promoting the sport?
Arun Singh, secretary general of the Indian Golf Union, says: “Aditi’s was a wonderful performance, considering she was the youngest and has only one year of pro experience. She will become stronger as she grows.... The third round set her back and it takes experience to deal with winds and other factors, which only comes from playing more.”
He adds: “Some may achieve success as pros and some will achieve success as amateurs. Growth in amateur golf is much better than just simply looking at (individual) success.”
Singh has a solution to popularize the sport that is simple, but needs consensus. “Why can’t golf clubs open their courses to the public? Why don’t private clubs use their lean hours to become pay and play? We need more academies and courses for upcoming golfers.”
Singh observes that India needs to embrace golf as a sport without calling it “elitist”—for him, that is a “stigma”. “Few know that wrestling is far more expensive. The diets are special. The training is special. In golf, you don’t change equipment again and again, and you don’t need special diets,” he adds.
Nonita Lall Qureshi, an award-winning teaching pro who trains golfers at the Delhi Golf Club, says India’s problem is its legacy of losing and the mentality that accepts being second best. She expresses concern about our inability to fight it out in global sporting events: “Sportspersons need to be extremely competitive. They have to be pushing harder and training better.”
So what holds us back? “Accessibility is a must for any sportsperson,” says Singh. “Most of the facilities—be they sports, science, or nutrition—are not available to most players. Second, we have a historical baggage of not having won enough medals. We have been diffident. Badminton may have overcome this a bit, thanks to Saina (Nehwal), but for most others it’s a slow process.”
Even in the case of men’s golf, he explains, the experience and body of work is just being built. “Anirban Lahiri has been on the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) Tour for just a year and in his PGA experience, he hasn’t won, except for one good finish at a major, the PGA Championship in October 2015. The moment Anirban starts winning, his self-belief will increase. Since we don’t have a winner’s mentality, and since we have lost in so many sports for so many years now, we will take some time to emerge out of it,” says Singh.
Aditi admits that experience is important to winning. “I learnt that I have to be more consistent and I have to maintain my rhythm through the week. I know I can compete at the highest level; I just have to keep working hard,” she says.
Most top women golfers from across the world participated in Rio; many of their male counterparts pulled out of the competition owing to fears over the Zika virus.
Qureshi says that unlike most other sports in India, golf is different in that its federations are actually run by golfers. “We have people who truly have an interest in the game and are not politicians. We need to build on this now,” she says.
Before the next Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, in 2020, India will need a roster of strong players. The question is, can there be more players—both men and women? Golf has a great opportunity—it starts on a clean slate at the Olympics, which did not have the sport for 112 years. This could be the time to change the future of the sport.
“Here is an opportunity, and let’s make it more accessible. Let’s not start with a culture of producing geniuses, but focus on the growth of the game,” says Singh.
Shaili Chopra is the founder of Golfingindian.com and India Golf Awards.