Golf has never really been a mainstream sport like hockey, athletics, wrestling or even shooting for Indian fans. Carrying an unwanted and unwarranted tag of being a ‘rich man’s sport’, golf has had to grapple with the mindset of people, who have often found it difficult to understand.
But on Saturday, the second last day of the Tokyo Olympics, a lank and somewhat frail-looking girl from Bengaluru had the entire nation enthralled with a sport that had terms like par, birdies, bogeys and roughs, fairways, greens and aprons.
Yet with a medal on the line, the entire populace was willing to overlook its unfamiliarity with the sport to root for a girl ranked World No 200 battle against the World No 1 and others for a place on the podium.
Struck by COVID in May-June, Aditi Ashok, who has been playing on the world’s strongest golf tour since the beginning of 2017 but still garnered only a limited number of fans, essentially golf lovers, missed a lot of events in May and June. That saw her ranking fall, but the grit and talent was there for all to see.
She had a disarming smile to go with it and her mother, Maheshwari, one of the two driving forces – the other being her dad, Ashok – was serving as the caddie for the week. What better way to bond with a parent than combining to seek an Olympic Games medal.
Those compelling stories had a lot of Indians all over the world coming together on social media platforms – like Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse – and then there were others willing to sacrifice their morning sleep on a weekend to watch this fine young lady.
Commentators not familiar with the game or its terminologies and demands were searching for words, even as Aditi found a way to battle with the world stars. Strokes were called points, which roughly translates to calling centuries by Virat Kohli as goals. Yet the interest soared as the finish came closer.
In the end, Aditi fell short of a medal by one shot – finishes in golf are rarely by massive margins. Even three shots is big. She finished fourth as the current World No 1, Nelly Korda, daughter of tennis Grand Slam winner, Petr Korda, took gold and Japan’s own Mone Inami, World No 28, was second. Former World No 1 Lydia Ko, who had scaled the peak ranking when she was just 17 years and nine months old, was third.
Yes, Aditi fell short by one, just as Milkha Singh did; just as PT Usha did; or Abhinav Bindra did (in 2016 after winning gold in 2008); or the women’s hockey team did this time. Many others, too, fell at the doorstep of a podium. But this time around, the nation melted like never before – the president and prime minister sent messages and so did the sporting fraternity.
The president posted a congratulatory tweet: “Well played, Aditi Ashok! One more daughter of India makes her mark! You have taken Indian golfing to new heights by today’s historic performance. You have played with immense calm and poise. Congratulations for the impressive display of grit and skills.”
The PM tweeted: “Well played @aditigolf! You have shown tremendous skill and resolve during #Tokyo2020. A medal was narrowly missed but you’ve gone farther than any Indian and blazed a trail. Best wishes for your future endeavours.”
The final round of the Olympic women’s golf was probably the most watched round in the history of Indian and probably Asian golf and maybe much farther. Millions were glued to their TV sets following the fortunes of Aditi, who after three days was lying second and in line for an unprecedented medal at Olympic golf.
Aditi, 23, who represented India at the Rio Olympics, had fraternity looking in awe after two days of great golf in 2016. But by the end she finished T-41. While golf fans still recall that performance, others forgot her and her performances on the LPGA, the world’s toughest Tour, often stayed in the column, “In brief”.
Aditi was tied second after the third day and when news filtered in about a possible storm and cancellation of the final round, a medal-starved India started looking at weather charts in and around Tokyo.
One group on Twitter Spaces had more than 140 people at one time discussing Indian golf. Participants included sportspersons from other sports like former Olympians Aparna Popat, a former World Junior silver medallist in badminton, table tennis star Neha Aggarwal and professional golfer S Chikkarangappa, who last week was Lahiri’s caddie in Tokyo. They were joined by professional journalists and others who love golf and know about Aditi’s talent.
Even after she ended fourth, Twitter was agog with messages from the likes of Olympians like Abhinav Bindra, Mahesh Bhupathi and many others, who themselves know the pain of finishing fourth.
In recent years, golf has had more exposure and the exploits of Jeev Milkha Singh, Anirban Lahiri, Shubhankar Sharma, Aditi Ashok, Tvesa Malik and Diksha Dagar have found space in the print media, but rarely on TV channels, whose inclination to cricket is well-documented.
Yet on the first Saturday of August 2021, Aditi may have given the Indian sports fan a new sport to follow more keenly than ever before. She may well have ushered in a new era for Indian women’s golf, Indian women’s sport and may be even Indian golf and sport.
Thank you, Aditi.