There's no great mystery why India's consistently poor performance at global sporting events belies its wealth of talent and sheer number of sportspersons.
Circa 1989. My father—in what was an inscrutable choice of a golf instruction book for an adolescent—presented me with Gary Player’s Golf Begins at 50. That book introduced me to Player’s trademark ‘walk-through swing’ — a technique characterised by a free turn of the body, a strong grip and plenty of hand action through the ball. I still have that book, and remember trying to ape the swing that Player advised readers not to make: the ‘square-to-square’ swing popularised by players like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman who hit straight towering drives. While I don’t know of any pro who adopted the ‘walk-through swing’, there are elements of it in some of the swings today, especially with players trying to reduce the strain on their backs.
I found myself thumbing through this book after reading about the demise of Player’s better half—Vivienne Player—recently. I vaguely recalled reading about her in the book. As it turns out Player had dedicated the book to her, and, in the acknowledgements section, written about their partnership being the cornerstone of his success. “My success is our success,” he wrote, referring to Vivienne’s heavy lifting in a marriage that allowed him to focus single-mindedly on his career.
Player is not modest. And that mention remains the only instance I’ve come across of him acknowledging anyone else’s contribution to his hall-of-fame career. Now, after 60 years of navigating life’s layout together—a partnership that bore six children and 22 grandchildren—Player finds himself adrift, shorn of his lifelong anchor. Commiserations, sir—on what must be your biggest loss.
Talking of partnerships, there was a bit of talk about Aditi Ashok’s mother being on her bag at Tokyo 2020. Now it’s obvious that Ashok’s mother is the exception to the rule: ask any coach about young players’ parents and watch them roll their eyes. The line between parental support and pressure is a thin one, and when pushy parents cross the line, then it’s counterproductive at best. There’s a long list of promising players who’ve given up the game because of being traumatised by parental pressure to perform. Clearly, Ashok’s mother is as exceptional as her daughter.
Now that all the post-Olympic fervour is ebbing, life will return to normal for our athletes. And that, in most cases, translates to abject neglect from the governing bodies of their sport in the country. In 2018, while shooting a series of films on winter athletes in India I was shocked to experience, first hand, petty politics in sports that have barely even registered a presence in India. In the same year, a great deal of external lobbying went on to get the equestrian sports federations’ clearance for the team to participate in the Asian Games. The team went on to win two silver medals.
Like they did in 2016, both Anirban Lahiri and Ashok came home and gave statements about the need to promote golf in India. Ashok reiterated that despite making it to the Games, her pleas for accommodation closer to the venue at Tokyo 2020 had fallen on deaf ears. The young lass had to take a 90 minute-drive one-way to the Kasumigaseki Golf Course from the Olympic village while her competitors were ensconced in hotels within a stone’s throw of the venue. Did three hours on the road every day, over six days (including two practice rounds), affect her performance? Especially, since Ashok was still dealing with the debilitating effects of her bout with Covid-19 in May this year?
There’s no great mystery why India’s consistently poor performance at global sporting events belies its wealth of talent and sheer number of sportspersons. Our triumphs are largely stories of exceptional individuals beating significant odds. Those who make a mark, do so largely despite the lack of official support, not on account of it. The most important partnership a professional athlete needs is with the official support mechanism. To focus on competing against the best in the world, requires laser-focus—a job where multi-tasking is hardly desirable, and, unnecessary administrative stress, can derail the best-prepared athletes. We’re still talking about getting the fundamentals right in India.
Compare that with Thailand’s approach to women’s golf. In February 2012, I remember walking on the sidelines of the LPGA’s Honda Classic being held in Pattaya, Thailand. Now golf has always been very popular in Thailand, but when the event’s first edition was held in the country in 2006, only a handful of Thai players were on the LPGA, and none of them had managed better than a solitary Top-10 finish. What really made an impression on me during that visit, was the level and frequency of interaction between the pros and Thai juniors—clinics, social events et al—that had been organised. 10 years later, Ariya Jutanugarn became the first Thai golfer, man or woman, to win a Major Championship. The 2016 British Open winner brought things to a full circle earlier this year by winning the Honda LPGA in her country, joining three other Thai players who’ve won on the LPGA during this season. Asked about the biggest takeaway from her win, Jutanugarn simply said, “I hope I can inspire some Thai (girls) to pick up golf.”
When asked about what changes he hoped Ashok’s and his Olympic performances would spur, Lahiri had modest expectations. “We could make small driving ranges…but somebody needs to take the initiative. That’s where you’re going to find the diamonds in the rough. That’s where you’re going to find the talent. You’re not going to find it if there’s nowhere for someone to go and even get introduced to the sport.” Full marks to Lahiri for reiterating the obvious with a straight face. This is the same dead horse we’ve been flogging for two decades now.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game