Circa 1998-2000. The driving range of the Army Golf Club (AGC) in New Delhi was a nursery for aspiring young golfers who dreamed of playing golf for a living. At the time, golf was accessible mostly to children of the ultra-rich (who scoffed at the AGC and preferred the Delhi Golf Club), children of tea estate managers who honed their craft at remote courses in Assam, and fauji kids. I’d like to believe that the last category, of which I happened to be a part of, was the most privileged of the lot—not only did we benefit from the army’s sporting culture, but we also knew that unless we made a go of it, there was no trust fund to fall back on. And so it went. This band of dreamers could be seen banging balls from dawn to dusk fuelled by the knowledge that it could be done: Jyoti Randhawa, also the son of an army officer, had already shown the way.
Some were genuinely talented (Himmat Singh Rai went on to win on the Asian Tour), some were grinders (Vikrant Chopra literally crafted a swing that has made him successful on the PGTI, while Deepinder Kullar—possessor of a wonderfully natural long fluid swing—sacrificed some of the beauty of his action to develop a more robust repeatable swing that helped him make his way to the pro circuit). Others became coaches: Anitya Chand, who was the top-ranked amateur of the day, is today one of the most highly sought-after coaches in the country and runs the DLF Academy, while Sandeep ‘Chimmy’ Verma runs the Ultimate Performance Center at the Golden Greens GC and is also the most proficient club-fitter in the country. Some like this columnist realised that any attempt to turn pro would result in certain starvation and chose to write about the game instead.
Amongst this motley group was a thin scrawny kid, younger than most, who the bigger boys (admittedly) bullied. With big glasses, and a high-ball flight, he came out of nowhere and won the medal rounds at the AGC with surprising alacrity much to the chagrin of everyone else. Manish Singh Pathania had a good game, but wasn’t one of the ‘cool’ kids to hang out with. Then he went underground and wasn’t heard of till he turned pro and joined the PGTI in 2005.
Now, we know where he was: done being the underdog, the lad grew up and grew up fast. He hit the gym and supplemented his golf with a strenuous physical regimen. His transformation into a strapping muscled young man was so dramatic that he decided to sever all ties to his diminutive former self and changed his name to Mandeo Singh Pathania. On the PGTI, where we won in 2010, Pathania quickly acquired a reputation for prodigious distance—you could outplay him, but no one could come in the vicinity of his booming drives. A smart kid, he joined Jaypee Greens in the NCR as resident coach, and continues to be sponsored by the company. He wasn’t winning big, but as far as playing golf for a living went, he was living the dream.
So I wasn’t that surprised when I recently saw a video of Pathania’s unmistakable driver swing with PGA Tour stars Nick Watney and Camilo Villegas standing by gaping, as the ball was dispatched somewhere in the vicinity of 350 yards. As it turns out, Pathania, whose wife—Namrata Shergill—is Canadian, moved continents in pursuit of every pro golfer’s dream: playing on the PGA Tour. “I am playing on the CPGA tour (second-tier tour in Canada) and I also give lessons here, which support me financially,” he says, adding that he plans to shift to Florida for the winter and try his luck at Q School for web.com tour in October. Pathania has started with a bang all right, winning the first event he teed up at on the CPGA tour—the order of merit winner gets an exemption into PGA Tour events in Canada, and that’s what he’s aiming for. “The experience is great. I am finally getting the recognition for my ball striking, and have courses, where I can make the most of my driving distance. I have also taken my fitness to the next level and have got fitted for my clubs here, and the combination is lethal when it comes to distance. I am hitting it further than I have ever hit in my career. My average was 330 yards on the PGTI, now, the big ones go about 340-360 yards. And yes, I did not see anyone hit it past me,” he says with his trademark modesty.
He’s talking about the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian open experience, where he was a reserve and narrowly missed getting a sport in the main event. But he, accompanied by old friend Kullar, did manage to play in the pro-am and a few practice rounds with some of the best players in the world. “Their putting is what the major difference is and they never beat themselves up for bad shots. They hole two-three more putts than what I do in a day and that totals up to 8-12 shots for the week. Ball striking and fitness- wise, there’s no difference at all, but how they handle themselves on the course is key,” he says. Khullar has a different take: “I think our short games are really good, but all these guys are strong and hit the ball a long way off the tee. Their ball striking is of a higher calibre,” he says, adding that the experience has made him think about considering a move to Canada. Heart-warmingly, both Khullar and Pathania speak of the unstinted support they have received from the Indian diaspora in Canada.
Pathania’s length piqued the interest of none other than Tiger Woods’ former coach Sean Foley who spent half-an-hour analysing the golfer’s swing. “I might work with him when I go to Florida,” says the golfer, adding that of all the players he really enjoyed Villegas’ company. “He’s super-friendly, plus we have biceps in common,” he says in all seriousness. No one can accuse Pathania of being a complicated person, and that works well for his grip-it-and-rip-it approach to the game. It’s certainly not the last we’ve heard of him.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game