Shubhankar takes the continental prize; Tiger’s back in the hunt; and Jyoti’s trapped in the woods. We’re not going to forget 2018, that’s for sure.
Here I was, content—in the knowledge that all my writing for the year was done—and salivating over a much-awaited year-end vacation, (that, for a change does not involve golf), when Jyoti Randhawa decided to give Indian golf its first (in the language of the millennials), ‘facepalm’ moment. Not to address the fact in this column, that the talented and temperamental golfer from Gurugram, one of India’s original three—along with Jeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal—is in the clink, would be egregious, especially since I’ve known Jyoti, albeit peripherally, for decades.
While it’s unlikely that you don’t know what I’m talking about, for the benefit of those who’ve not followed the news last week, Randhawa was arrested by forest officials for poaching in a reserve forest in Uttar Pradesh. Prima facie there doesn’t appear to be any ambiguity about Randhawa’s culpability: carcass of a jungle fowl and a sambar deer’s hide along with a rifle were recovered from Randhawa’s vehicle.
It would be only appropriate to disclose here that I’ve always liked Randhawa. Not only because he was the first pro golfer I saw in action as a wide-eyed teenager, but simply because he’s an interesting bloke, with a life that, unlike most dyed-in-the-wool pros doesn’t start and end with golf. Randhawa, over the past years has made news for being a skydiving addict, and a competitive marksman. He’s also refused to give up his zeal for motorcycling inspite of an accident on a superbike a few years back which nearly derailed his golf career. He’s also been involved in an excellent initiative to teach the game to underprivileged kids. Now it appears that Randhawa’s co-curricular activities, might have involved shooting more than inanimate targets. And if that charge is found true, and he’s convicted then this might well be a truly sorry end for a truly path-defining golf career. I admit I’m gobsmacked…what was he thinking?
Moving on to sunnier subjects. 2018 was the year of the underdog solely on account of Shubhankar Sharma’s exploits. Minted India’s highest-ranked player after he climbed to 64th in the world after a top-10 finish at the Indian Open, Sharma spent most of the season within the Top-100 and became the first Indian to play all the Major Championships in one season. Now, two decades after an Indian pro—Jeev Milkha Singh—became the first Indian to qualify for the European Tour, Sharma has topped the class of 2018 on the Continental circuit. With two emphatic wins—the Maybank Championship and the Joburg Open— and 1.2 million euros in prize money, Sharma finished 28th in the race to Dubai. Perhaps the biggest indicator of just how well Sharma has done is that he won despite not doing particularly well in the last few months. The 22-year-old Chandigarh golfer also wrapped up the Order-of-Merit title on the Asian Tour, the youngest player from India to do so. For me, the moment of the year, was watching Sharma go into the final round with the lead on his debut in a World Golf Championship. At the WGC – Mexico, playing with Phil Mickelson in the final pairing Sharma eventually finished ninth, but had done enough to get the world to sit up and take notice of this diminutive golfer from India.
Tiger Woods. Golf hacks like me are tired of writing about this man’s superhuman abilities, but there’s no question that Wood’s resurgence after a last-resort ‘fusion’ back surgery is by far the most epochal event in world golf this year. Woods has abandoned the tight rotational swing techniques he’s worked on the past decade—(and which have apparently contributed to his injuries)—to return to a classic lateral up-and-down golf swing. Looking more like the kid who swung out of his shoes to win the 1997 Masters Tournament, Woods has re-ignited public interest in the game. His pay-per-view contest with Phil Mickelson was the most-watched golf telecast on OTT channels in 2018. Woods also renewed a lucrative sponsorship by Hero MotorCorp and signed up with Discovery Communication’s GolfTV to create content for what promises to be the most expansive media platform for golf viewers in 2019. The legend of Tiger Woods carries on. If Hero Motorcorp’s endorsement headlined corporate India’s involvement in the sport globally; closer to home, the second edition of Asian Tour’s TakeSolutions Masters was the scene of Viraj Madappa’s unprecedented triumph at the KGA in Bengaluru. 20-year-old Madappa, who turned pro just last year became the youngest Indian to win on the Asian Tour. Another young golfer, 26-year-old Khalin Joshi won the Asian Tour’s Panasonic Open at the Delhi Golf Club.
And just like that, Indian golf has depth, as youngsters making their way through the junior and amateur ranks join the pro ranks. First stop for them is the PGTI; the Indian Tour is all set to be included in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) system from 2019. That will make the task of breaking on to international tours much easier for promising players who do well enough at home. Like Joshi whose triumph at the Panasonic Open propelled him to the top of the PGTI’s merit list even before the last event was played. Joshi pocketed over `60 lakh in the season but spelled out his bigger ambitions in a post-event statement. “To be honest, it’s not been a very consistent year for me, but I’m happy that I still managed to put together some good weeks and get the job done. So many great Indian golfers have won the Order of Merit in India before going on to achieve bigger things at the international stage. So it’s nice to be in their company.”
These kids are in a hurry; they’ve had role models, and they know it can be done. That’s what Jyoti Randhawa should be remembered for.
(A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game)