Heartbreak! Aditi Ashok’s quest for a medal at Tokyo 2020 was the standout Indian performance at the Olympic Games

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August 08, 2021 5:45 AM

The Bengaluru golfers’ incredible performance at the ladies’ event at Tokyo 2020 was punctuated by abilities that would do a veteran proud.

Aditi AshokThe possibility that Aditi might return with a medal generated a buzz around golf never seen in the country. (Photo credit: Reuters)

You’ve got to feel for the girl—and at 23-years-of-age, Aditi Ashok is very much on the cusp of adulthood. And yet, the Bengaluru golfers’ incredible performance at the ladies’ event at Tokyo 2020 was punctuated by abilities that would do a veteran proud. Ashok was gutsy—she went for the shots she needed to; showed serious skill—not one weak putt, or bad swing; and mental fortitude—she drilled putts when under the gun, and did not show any signs of crumbling under pressure.

It really did seem like it was Ashok’s time to become the first Indian woman golfer to win an Olympic medal; right from the time she wrested the lead, albeit briefly, on the opening day to car a four-under 67; following that up with a faultless five-under 66; and then—when things went off the rails in the third round—fighting back to card a doughty four-under 68. Ashok’s conviction with the flat stick in particular was unreal: even on the 72nd hole she gave the ball a firm rap and followed that up with another comeback putt that was drilled into the centre of the cup. It’s quite apparent that confidence in her abilities is not something that she lacks.

I’m quite speechless—as I write, the final round of the Ladies’ golf event at the Olympics 2020 has just concluded, and the putt which would have put Ashok in a playoff for the bronze medal tantalisingly slid by the hole minutes back. Lesser players would have retreated into the locker room faster than their legs could carry them. Ashok, quite remarkably, hugged the winner, Nelly Korda, and congratulated her playing partner Lydia Ko. More than the bonhomie which is par for the course on tour, the sheer poise and composure from this young golfer who obviously has a glittering career ahead of her was nothing short of extraordinary.

Golf is one of the handful of sports at the Olympics in which professionals are allowed to compete. And Ashok is one of those rare golfers for whom the demarcation between amateur and professional ranks has been almost inconsequential. I mean, if you win a pro event, as a 13-year-old—as Ashok did when she won a WGAI event in Bengaluru back in 2010—then you’re unlikely to be nervous about the prospect of competing on that tour. Not only did Ashok win a pro event; she did it by beating LPGA veteran Smriti Irani in a playoff at the Clover Greens GC in Bengaluru.

In 2016, she came out of nowhere to win the Ladies’ European Tour’s Qualifying School tournament. Not only was she the first Indian (men or women) to win a qualifying tournament of an international tour, but, at 17-years-of-age, the youngest ever. Her cumulative 23-under-par was the lowest winning score at the tournament and she equaled the men’s course record of 10-under-par and set a new mark for the ladies at the Samanah Country Club. It was a stunning validation of the young girl’s skills and temperament on a big stage, and more importantly, against a world-class field.

She’s always been in a rush. After picking up the game at the Bangalore Golf Club as a five-year-old, Ashok rose up the amateur ranks in unprecedented haste. When she turned pro in 2016 she wrapped up her amateur career ranked 11th in the world and on top of the heap in Asia. Along the way she became the only Indian to play the Asian Youth Games (2013) Youth Olympic Games (2014) and Asian Games (2014). She was the first Asian to win the 2015 St. Rule Trophy and Lawson Trophy (St Andrews Links) and take the Silver medal at the International European Ladies Amateur Championship 2015.

Ashok’s mettle in international events became clear when she became the first Indian to win the Ladies British Amateur Open Stroke Play Championship (2015) and the 81st Singha Thailand Amateur (2015). Then, suddenly, there she was, in the top-ten after two rounds at the 2016 Games in Rio—a genuine medal prospect. Splashed across headlines in major dailies, and online, Ashok caught the country’s imagination in a way that no golfer has ever done. Suddenly golf went from being this elitist game to one that had actually thrown up a medal contender; the mantle of national pride was placed firmly on the young girl’s shoulders.

That year Ashok brought golf to the fore in a way it never does in India. There was plenty of public commentary on how players like her needed to be nurtured and supported to be able to contend at Tokyo 2020. Four years later, the only thing that hasn’t changed is Ashok’s performance, fuelled entirely by her determination and unflinching support of her parents and support crew. With a lapse of memory that is so symptomatic of our country’s collective sporting amnesia when it comes to anything but cricket, it’s taken yet another stellar performance at the Olympics for Ashok to hit the headlines. In Rio, she dropped down the leaderboard on the final day. At Tokyo she was in the hunt for a medal until she played her second-last stroke of the event.

Whether women’s golf in India gets broad-based support and sponsorship is a moot question. I’m not particularly optimistic. But one thing at least is for certain. We haven’t heard the last from Ashok. And it won’t take four years this time.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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