More than the wins, or the money for that matter ($3.5 million career earnings), it's how Jeev galvanised innumerable youngsters in India to pick up the sport.
Jeev Milkha Singh. It’s only when I write his name, that I realise just how much I’ve missed doing so. In the perfect script I should have been able to close on that line, proffering no explanation: that subliminal response sums it up better than I could articulate it: polite to a fault, humble without being self-disparaging, old-school chivalrous with not a hint of chauvinism (rare in men, practically unheard of, amongst golf pros), a golfer and a gentleman-Jeev is both, and neither by chance.
Lest you think that this is an end-of-the-road paean, be reassured, Jeev isn’t hanging up his boots anytime soon. Interviewed by the Asian Tour at his home in Chandigarh where he’s been since the lockdown in India in March this year, Jeev spoke of new frontiers. “Next year onwards I am a senior, I’m going to be a little kid in a candy store. I am going to do the qualifying for the Champions Tour next year, in October. I should be exempt in Europe, and Japan because I won four times,” said the two-time Asian Tour Order of Merit winner, who turns 50 in December 2021.
People who know Jeev couldn’t be happier about the enforced break forced on the golfer by the coronavirus lockdown. One of the most-travelled pros in the world, Jeev is known for his relentless playing schedule that has undoubtedly (though he won’t admit it) contributed to some of his injuries over the years. In 2020, after playing in the Bandar Malaysia Open in March he was supposed to fly to Thailand but headed for Dubai when the event was postponed, and then hotfooted it back to Delhi when India was going into lockdown. “The good part is that after so many years — I have been a pro for 26 years — I haven’t spent time like this at home. The first two and a half months when you could not go out anywhere was very tough because I was so used to travelling and playing events. “I said it is time for me to work on my mental side, time for me to work on my yoga, time for me to spend time with my family, with my son, and with my parents – who are getting old…” he says.
Nice try Jeev. Literally everyone who’s followed his career knows better than to believe that Jeev might be slowing down. Even if he admits that the pace isn’t quite as punishing anymore. “The focus in the next two years will be to win once and to set an example for the youngsters. Normally, people believe that a player’s career is over by the age of 42-43 but we have seen the likes of Mukesh Kumar winning apart from players like Fred Couples, who won on the PGA tour in his 40s. I try to do quality practice nowadays and play 18 holes. If I used to hit 300-400 balls earlier, nowadays I hit 100-150 balls,” he says.
Now this column is beginning to sound like a paean: a bit like the welcome address when a golfer is inducted into the Hall-of-Fame. Now, while that might well be on Jeev’s career goals, it’s certainly not a current ambition: “I am not that old,” was his sheepish response when a tournament on the PGTI – the Jeev Milkha Singh Invitational Championship – was named after him. He’s not: a year-and-a-half away from turning 50. But he’s old enough, and accomplished enough, on a smorgasbord of Tours around the world: 26 years and counting. In that time he’s won six Asian tour titles, four European Tour titles, and four Japan Tour titles. The Chandigarh golfer last won an international title in the Scottish Open 2012 and his last top-three finish came in the Indonesian Open in 2016, where he came second.
I remember running into Jeev practicing at the 2016 Indian Open. He’d been off his game, but you couldn’t have guessed that watching him stripe the ball (after that trademark pause at the top of the swing) after ball at the range. “I struggled the last three years. I decided to look at some things and went back to when I was playing my best golf in 2006 and 2008 (when he was Asian Tour number one), looked at a lot of videos, the way I swung the club. I’m trying to go back to that and remember that, and I’m feeling better with my swing,” he said, grinning broadly. Jeev missed the cut that week, but a sizeable gallery landed up at the range over the weekend just to watch him swing. That experience, especially for those who haven’t seen Jeev swing a club live, is indescribable: think incredulity stirred with amazement.
More than the wins, or the money for that matter ($3.5 million career earnings), it’s how Jeev galvanised innumerable youngsters in India to pick up the sport. It could be done, and he showed at least two generations how to do it — the doors had been knocked down, and there’s been no stopping Indian golfers since. One privileged youngster has more than inspiration to draw from: ten-year-old Harjai Milkha Singh won the British Junior Golf Tour (under-9 category) last year. To be fair Harjai had a distinct advantage — the counsel of a top pro carrying his bag.
Things have come full circle for Jeev with his son picking up the game, and even though he’s unlikely to reprise his own father’s tough love (Milkha Singh would wake up and push a young Jeev for a run at 4.30 am), he’s made sure that young Harjai has his fundamentals in place. “My job as a parent is to groom him in a way that he should conduct himself well and be a good human being, be helpful to people and animals.” Not a word on golf: as role models go, this kid has got it made.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game