Young Indian golfer Anika Varma shot a flawless three-under 69 in the opening round to grab the tied fifth spot at the Women's Amateur Asia-Pacific (WAAP) here on Wednesday.
The 17-year-old US-based golfer, who burst into the limelight with a sensational fifth place finish as a 15-year-old at the 2019 Hero Women's Indian Open, picked up birdies on the par-3 fourth and seventh holes, followed by another on the 10th.
Varma was the best-placed Indian and three shots behind Thailand's 'Ms 300 yards', Natthakritta Vongtaveelap, who enjoyed a two-shot lead after a brilliant six-under par 66 that featured seven birdies.
Eight Indian girls are in contention at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club's National course – two of them nominated by host nation UAE.
Purdue University star Sifat Sagoo and 15-year-old Avani Prashanth, of Bengaluru, were tied 21st at one-under par.
Sneha Singh, who won both the Junior and Amateur all-India title in 2019, closed at one-over par (T-39). Kriti Chowhan (76, T-60) and Nishna Patel (78, T-68) were the other players in the Indian team.
Varma, who is committed to join the University of Oregon team next year, was happy with her round.
"It was pretty good. I hit my irons well and I was good off the tee. I did not make all the putts, but that's okay. Three birdies in a bogey-free round is always good," said Varma, who grabbed a second place finish in West Coast Women's Amateur in the US in her last WAGR event.
"I am just going back to my room and finishing my assignments. I am not thinking much about the round, and I am not expecting much from tomorrow's round. I don't set any numbers, ust stay in the moment and play.
"I just want to play to the best of my ability. Doesn’t matter if I shoot a five-under or a even-par. As long as I know I gave it my best shot, I am happy." Sagoo, who started from the 10th tee, was coming in nicely at 3-under par, before making late bogeys on the fifth and seventh holes.
"I played well, except for that stretch of holes 5-7. I just became a bit conservative there and paid the price. So, that’s one thing I want to do tomorrow – stay aggressive throughout the round," she added.
Prashanth was two-under par after 17 holes, before failing to make an up-and-down on the par-4 ninth hole – her last.
"That finish was very disappointing. I am a good bunker player and nine times out of 10, I will back myself to make a par from where I was. But I did all right out there and tomorrow is another day," said Prashanth, who has won two Hero Women's Golf Association of India events this season.
Natthakritta, who earned her nickname because of the phenomenal length she generates off the tee and often smashes 300-yard drives in domestic events, made a nervous start that saw her make an early bogey on the par-5 second hole. She was rarely in trouble on the golf course after that.
A group of three players from three different countries – Chun-Wei Wu of Chinese Taipei, Mizuki Hashimoto of Japan and Viera Permada Rosada of Indonesia – were in tied second place at four-under par 68.
A total of 78 players from 16 APGC nations are taking part this week.
WAAP is one of the most important events in the calendar for players from the Asia-Pacific region, with the champion golfer getting guaranteed securing entries in the AIG Women’s Open and The Amundi Evian Championship (both major championships), as well as an invitation to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
Two different routes to the championship
The Hyderabad-based Sneha, and Varma, who moved to Sacramento in the US for high school and golf, have chosen completely different routes to the championship.
Sneha has become the leading Indian player at No.153 on WAGR by playing extensively in domestic amateur tournaments and the occasional Hero Women's Golf Association of India Tour, in which she has won three titles playing against the professionals in the last three years.
"I have been playing very well this year, but more than my finishes (three wins and five top-8s in nine starts), what I am really happy about is that I have managed to post good scores," said Sneha.
"It is my first time representing India at such a big stage, and I am just going to enjoy myself and do all the things that I do well on the golf course."
Varma is still in school and has committed to playing for University of Oregon (a top-five team in the US collegiate system). With not many school events offering WAGR points in the US, her ranking has fallen to No.478, but it did not bother her much.
"It doesn't matter if you have played, or if you haven't played, in the big tournaments. I feel like everything's been going well. It's honestly how you perceive it," said Varma, who is playing her second WAAP.
She had missed the cut in the 2018 edition in Singapore and reached the Round of 32 in this year's prestigious Women's Western Amateur in the US.
"If I think I haven't played any good tournaments and I won't know how I'm going to play, then that's how I'd think. But if you think like, oh, I'm in great condition, I've been working hard, and I've been putting 100 per cent, then you are going to play well anyway."
The tournament, organised by the R&A and the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation (APGC), features six of the top-30 players in the world, with Korea’s Youmin Hwang, No.4 on the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) and China’s world No.7 Xiaowen Yin the top-ranked players.
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