Here’s a question: which Indian golfer has the maximum number of appearances in Major tournaments? Hazard a guess? All the golfers I’ve put this question to have cried foul when told the correct answer; one even articulated it: “That’s a trick question!”
It is not a trick question. Just that the answer is not Anirban Lahiri, or Jeev Milkha Singh, or Arjun Atwal, or for that matter, any male golfer. That would be Aditi Ashok—the same person who had the country transfixed, watching, of all things, a stroke play golf event during the 2022 Olympics. The fact that the majority of these viewers did not play, or even follow the game, makes Ashok’s accomplishment unparalleled in Indian golf. Want a lesson in how to ‘grow the game?’ Well, that’s how it’s done…with role models such as Ashok.
And yes, Aditi Ashok has played more Major events than her male counterparts. She’s also been a Rookie of the Year on the Ladies European Tour—a tourney she’s won thrice, and has finished in the Top Ten 18 times. One of those wins came on home turf at the 2016 Women’s Indian Open, and Ashok was back for an encore earlier this month, when the event was held after a hiatus of two years at the DLF Golf & Country Club on the suburbs of the capital.
The Women’s Indian Open is India’s annual date with the premier ‘Ladies’ European Tour. Considering that we tend to trail the West when it comes to breaking gender stereotypes, or being politically correct in our language, the delicious irony of that difference in nomenclature is one to savour. So, allow me to emphasise the point: the Women’s Indian Open, is co-sanctioned by the ‘Ladies’ European Tour. What’s in a name you ask? Not much if it’s an empty relic of the past divested of any connotations.
As those who were present in the sizeable gallery to witness the event earlier this month will attest, there’s nothing demure, polite, or ‘ladylike’ about the game that some of the best women players from around the world put on display. Olivia Cowan (English by origin, but born and brought up in Germany), the daughter of a teaching pro, who has been competing seriously since she was around 10 years old, won the event. Her final day four-under-par 68 put her three shots clear of the field, and she finished with a winning score of 13-under. This was Cowan’s first win on the LET after a string of also-ran appearances.
The showstopper, however, was the girl that Cowan stole the show from—Amandeep Drall. The young Indian has made steady progress through the ranks of women’s golf over the past few years, and put on a stellar display to finish tied second. By her own standards, Ashok was not on top of her game, and still managed to finish in the top 5. And besides the two highly-vaunted Indians in the fray, many others figured on the leaderboard. Diksha Dagar, Vani Kapoor, Tvesa Malik, among others, impressed with their ability to hold their own in a world-class field. And what made an even greater impression was the large number of young women on the sidelines cheering the players. In the world of women’s golf, Malik, Kapoor, Drall and Ashok are not just names, but heroes to young girls picking up the game. Role models.
And that’s how it all starts. South Korea’s tryst with women’s golf began in 1998 when a 20-year-old Se Ri Pak outlasted amateur challenger Jenny Chuasiriporn in an epic 20-hole playoff, to become the youngest winner of the US Women’s Open. The win—Pak’s first as a professional—announced her arrival as one of the hottest talents on the premier LPGA Tour. Pak sealed her status with another major win, the LPGA Championship, later that year. Her unprecedented success raised the stock of Asian golf, but more importantly, set into motion an interest in women’s golf in Korea.
In 2013 after winning the US Women’s Open, Pak’s compatriot Inbee Park thanked her or breaking the door down. “I’d like to thank Se Ri for all that she’s done for Korean golf. I didn’t know anything about golf back then, but I was watching her (on TV). Just looking at her, I thought I can do it too,” said Inbee. 19 at the time, Inbee had broken Pak’s record of becoming the youngest ever US Open winner. Two decades down the line from Pak’s debut, Koreans comprise the largest overseas group on the LPGA.
So how did they do it? How does a small country with a population of 50 million have over 4,000 scratch women golfers? And more importantly, how do the exploits of one player (Pak was the only Korean on the LPGA in ’98) inspire her compatriots to this extent?
In two words—infrastructural support. Following Pak’s win, the Korean golf federation got their act together, creating a three-tier amateur tour, which all players must come through to qualify for government support. Once they make it, the golfers then make their way through another three-tiered professional circuit. By the time these players have completed these circuits, they’re ready to graduate out of the KLPGA and head for the LPGA in Europe.
Things have come a long way in the past decade in India. The Indian Golf Union now regularly sends women amateurs overseas to take part in international tournaments. With pro golf becoming more economically viable as a career option, players no longer try and juggle academics and golf. The amateur circuit today has a much deeper talent pool than even a few years ago. But there’s no denying the fact that the game lacks accessibility—open only to the elite and especially to those from the armed forces. Despite all the self-congratulatory hosannas after Ashok’s performance at the Olympics, the attention hasn’t yet translated into initiatives aimed at the growth of the sport. So, you have a bunch of doughty women players, succeeding not because of the system, but despite it. They certainly put up a heck of a show at the 2022 Women’s Indian Open. More power to them.
Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.