A couple of years back, I was partnered with Mukesh Kumar in the pro-am of an Asian Tour tournament at the Delhi Golf Club. I was fresh off a golf trip to the Mission Hills complex in Shenzhen, China, where I had played exceptionally well. Fellow golfers will recognise the feeling of having ‘got it’: I felt, for the first time in years, that I had figured out how to play golf consistently at a high level. I was invincible; golf was easy; and now I could get on with the business of focusing on everything else in life.
I don’t really have to tell you how that round went. Golf, fickle as it is, brought me crashing down to mother earth at that pro-am where I barely broke 100. But that’s a story for another time.
What I remember about that round, though, is not my considerable despair, but rather how Kumar took time out to talk to and counsel me. In retrospect, all his banter, good humour and attempts to steer conversation away from golf were clearly well-natured, intended to make me relax and feel a bit better. And that was not because he didn’t care: all professionals are manic about nurturing the winning instinct and that doesn’t change whether it’s a pro-am or even a casual round. Every round is seen by them as preparation—of skills and temperament—for the money rounds. If Kumar was upset at my single-handed sabotage of our team’s chances, I couldn’t tell. In fact, unlike a number of European pros I’ve played with, he was interested in conversing, and doled out a healthy smattering of tips and advice on playing the game—much to the delight of the amateurs in the team.
Another thing I remember clearly is the startling lack of hesitation that Kumar exhibited on the ball. He would start, as most pros do, from behind the ball, take one look, no practice swing, step up and just hit the ball, mostly with excellent results. It seemed inconceivable to me at the time that this man—a five-time order-of-merit winner on the PGTI with a huge tally of over 100 professional titles—had never won an Asian Tour title. My remark to that effect elicited a genuine no-filter response: “Travelling abroad is expensive… I’m happy just to play in India.” That explains why this tremendously-gifted golfer has taken so long to break into the winners’ circle on the Asian Tour—at 51 years of age, he’s the oldest winner on the Asian Tour—which he did by becoming the first player on tour to post a wire-to-wire victory at the Panasonic Open earlier this month.
Kumar seemed as surprised as everyone else after wrapping up the rain-truncated, 54-hole tournament. “I’ll play on the Asian Tour next year now that I have won my card. However, I would have to give the Hong Kong Open next week a miss, as I won’t be able to get my passport renewed in time,” he remarked wryly. Not only is Kumar capable of winning on the Asian Tour, but, besides detractors, the veteran will have to believe in his ability to do so, as he launches into an exciting phase of his career. Ranked 1,414 in the world at the turn of the year (2015), Kumar has risen to 486th position in the world, courtesy the win at the DGC.
Less surprising, but no less exciting, has been Aditi Ashok’s tremendous performance at the closing clutch of events on the Ladies’ European Tour last month. After winning the co-sanctioned Indian Open at the DLF Golf & Country Club in Gurgaon in November, the 18-year-old from Bengaluru quickly proved that the win was no fluke by winning the Qatar Ladies Open the very next week. Ashok nearly made a hat-trick at the season-ending Omega Ladies’ Dubai Masters, but had to settle for the third spot in the tally. It’s so easy to forget that this is Ashok’s rookie year on the European circuit: her biggest paycheck came in Qatar (75,000 euros), taking her season’s earnings up to 207,355 euros. Of the 13 tournaments she entered in 2016, Ashok finished in the top 10 an incredible nine times. Not only has the youngster wrapped up rookie of the year award, but very nearly topped the Order-of-Merit, finishing second overall. That is an absolutely astonishing achievement; one that no player, man or woman, from India has ever achieved.
Ashok is already considered a star, not just in India, but in Europe as well. “Obviously, there is a lot of attention, especially since the Olympics. A lot of people want to write about me because I’m an Olympian, and not just part of women’s golf. In that sense, I think women’s golf is getting more popular in India. I think it’s good and I just try and deal with it the best that I can. Even before the Olympics, I was playing in LET events and I did sort of okay, but it wasn’t like it was of interest at that time. But obviously, after I played in the Olympics, everyone wants to know what I was doing because ‘the Olympian who was leading after two days is now playing here’. I think that made a difference and, hopefully, the interest continues to grow and not just with me, but with all the women golfers in India.”
Ashok is currently on a month-long break in Bengaluru before heading back on tour for the 2017 season. “I’ve been playing a lot of events and been playing well through all of them. I think that’s what’s helping me. After this, I’ll have some off-time, so that’s been good,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to going home.”
If you ask me, this young lady is the Indian sportsperson of the year.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game