Rahil Gangjee wins title in Japan, ends 14-year title drought

The 39-year-old Gangjee was tied with Korea’s Hyung-sung Kim, on 13-under, going into the 18th and the final hole.

Rahil Gangjee held his nerves, to hit a birdie on the final hole, to end with a score of 14-under and bag the title. (File Photo)   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

Indian golfer Rahil Gandjee, on Sunday, clinched the Panasonic Open title, in style, by hitting a birdie in the last hole, to end a 14-year-long title drought, here.

The 39-year-old Gangjee was tied with Korea’s Hyung-sung Kim, on 13-under, going into the 18th and the final hole. The Indian held his nerves to end with a score of 14-under and bag the title. Gangjee had won his maiden Asian Tour title, in China, way back in 2004.

The win brought Gangjee a lot of benefits, including a winner’s cheque of over $283,000, plus a bonus of $50,000 for finishing second on the Panasonic Swing, behind Shiv Kapur (who got $70,000). Gangjee, also, got two-year exemptions into Asian and Japan Tours.

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In the intervening period, from 2004 to the present, Gangjee had finished second three times, third another three times and had a total of 22 Top-10s.

Earlier in 2018, Gangjee had pulled out of the Myanmar and Singapore events because of a stomach bug, so this win makes up for all those.

Gangjee became the third Indian, after Jyoti Randhawa (Suntory Open 2003) and Jeev Milkha Singh (2 in 2006 and 2 in 2008), to win a Japan Tour title. In 2017, Ajeetesh Sandhu won a 36-hole event, on the Japan Challenge Tour.

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Kolkata-born Gangjee wanted to be a jockey before his father convinced him to take up golf because he was afraid of his son getting injured. Little over a year ago, Gangjee moved to Bengaluru and the move seemed to pay off.

An emotional Gangjee said, “It has been 14 years. I’ve been in such situations a few times now but obviously have not been able to convert my chances, until today. It has been a very hard 14 years and the thing that surprises, even myself, is my will to keep going.”

Not forgetting all those who helped him in this period, Gangjee added, “Everyone played their part in helping me out, my caddie, my mother, father, wife, friends. However, more than anything else, you have to want it. And that has kept me going. My heart rate was up and my mind started going all over the place. That was the chance I had to convert.”

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“My third shot, out of the bunker, was not really a tough shot. However, under the pressure, it could have been a very tough one. Nevertheless, somehow, I was calm. My bunker play is one of the strongest aspects of my game. A lot of people don’t get to see it, but if you ask my caddie, he will tell you that’s the best,” he added.

It was a massive relief for Gangjee, who did not have playing rights anywhere, including in India, when he came from the US, after losing his Nationwide (now Web.com) card, in 2012. He earned the 61st and final card for 2018 season.

Among other Indians, who played in the final round, Ajeetesh Sandhu (69), the last Indian to win in Japan, was tied-10, while S.S.P. Chawrasia (73), a one-time room partner of Gangjee, was tied-40 and Arjun Atwal (75), a former neighbour of Gangjee, in Kolkata, was tied-44.

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Gangjee, who started one shot behind Hyung-sung Kim, had a birdie on second, which the Korean matched. Nonetheless, both Gangjee and Kim, who have not won on the Asian Tour, despite playing on it for years, were tentative on the rest of the front nine. They bogeyed twice each, while another Korean Hwang Junggon, a group behind, caught up with three birdies on the front nine. The Korean duo was tied at 11-under, with Gangjee at 10-under.

On the back nine, it was Gangjee, who made the move first and Kim followed suit. Gangjee had a superb run of three birdies, from 12th to 14th, which carried him back to 13-under, while Kim birdied 13 and 14, to get to 13-under. Hwang birdied 12th, to get to 12-under.

Kim and Gangjee stayed steady, with pars for the next three holes and were still at 13-under. Hwang bogeyed the 16th but birdied 17th and 18th to set the clubhouse target of 13-under.

When Kim and Gangjee came to the 18th tee, there was a three-way tie for the lead. Kim went into the bunker and then Gangjee went into the bunker, off the second shot. That’s when Gangjee pulled off a great third shot and completed a great up-and-down, to birdie the 18th and get to 14-under. Kim managed only a par and stayed at 13-under with Hwang to finish second.