Inspired by the recent success of Indian golfers, the original master plots a comeback, resurrecting his belief in his game
Jeev Milkha Singh, 43, has been India’s global ambassador for golf for decades. Having played the national open after a gap of seven years, he takes pride in the new talent India is producing. He is impressed with the winning streak of golfers like Anirban Lahiri and Rashid Khan. Having played over 200 tournaments, Singh is resurrecting his belief in his own game and strategy. As the spotlight returns to Indian talent—thanks to Lahiri’s world ranking of 34, ahead of Tiger Woods and Jason Dufner—Singh recalls how hard it was for Indians to get established on the golf map. He also reflects on what he is doing to reboot and win again. Edited excerpts:
You’ve seen the game grow in India. What do you regret most about the state of golf and the way it’s playing out here?
The only thing I would regret would be that we need more corporate houses to come out and sponsor more events and sponsor players to take this game to the next level. What that will do is that it’s going to increase the standard of golf, plus there is going to be more competition, more kids coming up because parents will give a free hand to the child to make a livelihood out of this game.
How difficult was it for you to make a livelihood when you started out?
Very tough. I was fortunate that my uncles helped me to go out because my parents couldn’t afford it. I got a little bit of sponsorship, I made money as a professional golfer and then I put the same money back in the tour; I gambled on myself. Whatever I’d make on the tour, I’d put back and play more tournaments…make some more money, put that back. In 1996, though, I won big. That’s when I got comfortable with things, but for the first three years I really struggled, it was really tough for me.
India has players who grew up on the course playing as caddies, and those born with golf facilities and funds to see them through. But what they all have is access to some great technology and technique, and they are in a sense ahead of the curve when compared with the golfers of your time. What do you say to them?
I just tell these kids, and I told them three weeks ago, “If I was in your shoes¸ I’d say if Jeev Milkha Singh could do it, he was 28th in the world, why not me?" There wasn’t easy access to knowledge at that time, the equipment was not that good. You’ve got to push each other in a positive manner to make sure that you get to the next level and how you do that is by working on the right stuff. You should tell yourself that I’m going to do well on the Asian tour and then get to the European tour and the PGA tour, which I think are both of the same standard. You’ve got to have goals set for yourself and you shouldn’t get complacent.
Today everybody is saying golf is shining in India, but where do you see Indian golf going?
Realistically speaking, I think these young kids who are coming up have lots of potential. They are working on the right stuff, they have the right knowledge, they are strong, they’ve got the discipline. Golf has also changed a little bit. There is less pressure, as you mature, to play every tournament. I can’t play next week or I can’t last out for the next five months, so that pressure has (been) taken off. I think the player is freer to play and is more aggressive on the golf course, and he’ll do well. So I feel that the corporate houses need to come up, have sponsored events and sponsor upcoming kids.
What do you think distinguishes one good player from another, allowing that person to win in a field of other fantastic players?
It’s the mindset, I think. It’s how you handle yourself under pressure and the belief system in the player. You’ve also got to be mentally strong.
Injuries apart, how hard does it get for a player as he grows into the game and, more importantly, grows older?
I think injuries are a part of the package. It’s not the injury the player is worried about, it’s the setbacks he has from these injuries, and by that I mean mental setbacks. He loses trust in his game, that is the difficult part. What I told everybody is that I’m injury-free now and feeling much better, but the toughest thing for me is the mental part. Because you’ve played till a certain level and when you come out after an injury or you play with an injury, you don’t hit the shots that you want to hit and that brings your confidence down. So to get back to that same level, you have to reboot yourself, you’ve got to reboot your mind and start again.
You’ve got to mentally tell yourself, “You know what, I’m starting out fresh," and it’s the toughest thing to do. I just want to hit good golf shots, I want to hit solid golf shots. So now I can see the ball go up in the air, the way I want the ball shaped, the flight of the ball, I’m finally seeing that more often. In the last five weeks, I’ve seen that. So that’s where I feel that my game is right now, but I can’t pinpoint a weak point, but everything is hopefully going to click together.
What’s your state of mind?
The state of mind is very good. But the belief system needs to be back. I’m hitting the ball well but the belief system right now is at 50% and I want to get it up to at least 80%. If it gets up there, I’m in the winning circle.
What will get you back there?
Working on the right stuff, hitting good shots, shaping the ball the right way, putting good numbers on the board, that’s what’s going to get me there.
People used to say Jeev doesn’t have a swing that you can capture because he has a swing of his own. Do you think that swing of yours has stood you in good stead?
I think my swing is in good shape and I’m happy with the way I swing it. I think if I try to change it now, I will have to take on a new profession because I won’t be able to change it now. I’ve played with this swing for years, about 30 years. I want to stick to it, like I mentioned just now, it’s all about the belief system and that I’m working on, and when I get to that higher level, I’m going to be in the winning circle.
You are 43. What is the post-retirement plan?
I haven’t thought about that much because I feel like I still have a good 11 years left. I’m going to play the senior tour (worldwide), so I’m going to be a little kid in a candy store once again at 50, picking out and eating everything. I’m going to play till I’m 55 and then I’m going to decide. If I still feel and believe that I can win a major championship, I’m going to give it a go.
Shaili Chopra is the founder of Golfingindian.com and India Golf Awards.