A golf writer from the distant future, sifting through the trove of reportage from the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, is likely to be puzzled. First off, she’ll wonder, why were The Games called Tokyo 2020, when, in fact, the dates confirm that they were held in 2021?
Next, when going through media coverage, she’ll be nonplussed by the prodigious number of stories chronicling the performances of players who did not finish on the podium. The first— Hideki Matsuyama—she’ll surmise accurately, was the home favourite in a golf-crazy nation, widely tipped to win Japan’s first Olympic medal in golf. The fact that Matsuyama withstood that incredible pressure—in a country that places so much currency on individual feats—and put himself in a position to deliver on those expectations, will justify the attention his quest for Olympic glory received. The case of another golfer, a girl from India, who, by all indications, garnered significantly more attention than the three players who beat her to the podium, will require more digging.
The dry stats, as they are wont to be, offer little insight: in the mix for a top-three finish right from the start, Aditi Ashok, the 200th-ranked player in the world, missed a medal by a sliver when her putt for birdie on the last hole of the event narrowly missed the cup. She finished fourth, behind Nelly Korda, the top-ranked player in the world, N.Inami (ranked 28th) and Lydia Ko (ranked 11th). Ashok, undoubtedly the underdog in this company, fought tooth and nail till the very end. But that, as our fictional writer will discover after some more digging, is only half the story.
For the benefit of readers who may not play golf, some context is needed to get an insight into why the world’s media has gone to town about Ashok’s performance. Golf, like most sports, has changed significantly in the modern era on account of advances in technology as well as the increased athleticism of players. Combined with the modern golf swing that requires an elite level of strength and flexibility, players today hit the ball significantly longer. To counter that, one of the tools used is to lengthen golf courses, often to an unprecedented degree. Purists decry the rise of this ‘bomb-and-gouge’ golf which stacks the odds in favour of long-hitters whilst not adequately penalising their lack of accuracy. This is in stark contrast to the way golf was played until the 1980s: strategy, finesse and creativity mattered as much as brute strength.
To concoct a cricketing analogy—imagine a situation in which a team needs to score 10 runs with three balls to go in the final over. While one batsman is almost certain to hit a six off the first ball, the one on the other end is incapable of hitting a six—it’s a moot point that the short hitter will be under the gun to get the job done if he’s on strike. Now, imagine the latter facing this scenario 18 times (even the shortest hole at the Kasumigaseki GC was 189 yards long) every day for four days. Ashok’s modest length off the tee was reduced even more by weakness brought on by her bout with covid-19 in May this year. She wasn’t just marginally shorter off the tee, she was also the shortest hitter in the field of 60 players. And that meant she was, in essence, playing a different golf course from the players she was up against. Given that, it’s mind-boggling that Ashok not just kept up, but fought back the only way she could—on the back of a stellar short game. Her putting was, “…unbelievable,” gushed commentator Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay, repeatedly on air. ‘Bones’, who caddied for the greatest short-game player of our generation—Phil Mickelson—for 25 years is not prone to hyperbole. And he was gobsmacked by Ashok’s performance.
Around the world, traditionalists celebrated the return of a brand of golf they consider the true, more nuanced, test of golf. Ashok’s putting stats—the best in the field—were off the charts. And at the very end, when that birdie putt on the 72nd hole lipped out to deny her a medal, Ashok’s poise and composure was otherworldly for one so young.
No surprise then that Ashok has become a bonafide overnight celebrity in Japan—a country where being stoic in the face of defeat is considered even more important than winning. But none of this, understandably, can ease the pain of loss for a 23-year-old. "I think I gave it my 100 per cent, but, yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals, kind of sucks,” she rued.
In a way, Ashok’s valiant fight was emblematic of what Tokyo 2020, framed against the backdrop of a world ravaged by a dastardly virus, will be remembered for. Not so much for individual glory, but for perseverance, tenacity, and sportsmanship. These Games will also be remembered for the exceptional women who subverted the male-dominated narrative of superhuman feats. Simone Biles’ courage for standing up and acknowledging her mental frailty, against a sporting culture that demands excellence at all costs, and then overcoming it. Norway’s women’s beach handball team standing up against sexual objectification of their sport; Japanese gymnast Mai Murakami’s defiant performance in the face of the vicious online backlash that she and other Japanese athletes faced for participating in the Games. Tokyo 2020 will be remembered for courage in the face of adversity and the indomitable human spirit that refused to submit. And isn’t that, really, at the heart, of what the Olympics are all about?
Coming back to our hypothetical golf writer from the future. Perhaps she won’t be so perplexed after all. Maybe by then, Tokyo 2020 will also be remembered as the coming-out-party for the greatest woman golfer from India, who would go on to become the best player in the world. The first part of that is already true, and the second, is no flight of fancy; I kid you not.
Let’s hear it for Aditi Ashok.
Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer and television producer.