Putting herself on the path to glory

No Indian woman has ever won an LPGA Tour event. It only seems a matter of time before Aditi crosses that line.

Aditi Ashok practises relentlessly.   -  AFP

The perception of women’s golf in India changed halfway into Aditi Ashok’s campaign at the Rio Olympics. After two rounds, she was tied for eighth, level with Minjee Lee, who already had two wins on the LPGA to her name, and Ariya Jutanugarn, who had just triumphed at the Women’s British Open. She was only four shots off leader Inbee Park and two adrift of third place. An Olympic medal seemed within reach. And a nation desperate for sporting success had suddenly awoken to the possibility of a new hero. Overnight, Aditi’s social media following exploded from 700 to some 17,000. She would fall out of contention over the final two days but something had irrevocably been altered. A country indifferent to women’s golf had now sat up and taken notice.

“Just seeing the impact it had — it was something I didn’t foresee,” says Aditi. “It made golf more popular in India. Because people who’d never followed golf were trying to understand and Google what it was all about. It didn’t change anything for me but it was a big learning experience.”

For all the sensation her appearance at the Olympics created, there was nothing sudden about Aditi’s performance on the world stage. She had not qualified for the Games overnight, or emerged out of the blue.

As if to prove a point, weeks after her return from Rio, Aditi sealed back-to-back wins on the Ladies European Tour (LET), at the Hero Women’s Indian Open and the Qatar Ladies Open. It capped off a sensational first season in Europe, at the end of which she finished second on the Order of Merit and was named the LET’s Rookie of the Year. The two years since have seen steady progress, even if life in the upper echelons of the sport has been far from easy. In 2017, her rookie season on the LPGA, she competed in all five majors, and registered a maiden top-10 finish on the Tour at the Marathon Classic.

The year 2018 brought two top-10 and five top-20 finishes on the LPGA, and a tied-22nd at the British Open — a career-best display at a major — after twice missing the cut there. These two seasons on the LPGA have also demonstrated how much harder that jump across the Atlantic from the LET is. “On the LPGA, you’re up against 100 other girls that are the best in the world and one dropped shot means 20 girls go ahead of you,” says Aditi. “That is the biggest challenge. On the LET, even if I haven’t had a great week, I feel like I can finish top 10. On the LPGA, if you haven’t put it together all four days, a lot of players move ahead of you. And also you play a course that’s longer, with pin positions trickier.”

Her first LPGA season taught Aditi much. “In my rookie year I ended up playing almost eight weeks in a row at one point,” she says. “It was a little too taxing.” In her second year (2018) she planned her schedule better, leaving herself breaks between tournaments.

“Obviously, in comparison to 2017 (84th), I’m in a better position on the LPGA money list (69th); in that sense it feels like it was a better year. But I still fell I could’ve played better because I started the season pretty good. In the middle I didn’t really have many good weeks — they were pretty average,” she admits.

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“Up until 2017, I’d won every year. So this year, I was kind of hoping to keep that going and I tried but I just had top-10 finishes. Which was fine. I did my best at the British Open, much better than I’d done before. So that was a positive sign.”

It must not be forgotten that Aditi is still only 20. This past year, she spent all of eight weeks at home during the season; it cannot be easy. “I can’t drive yet, so when I travel to the U.S., I have to travel with one of my parents,” she says. “I haven’t yet found a permanent professional caddy. If I’m using somebody, my dad doesn’t travel; if I’m not, he travels and caddies. Having family alongside makes a big difference. With all the travel home feels pretty far away.”

“In comparison to 2017, I’m in a better position on the LPGA money list,” says Aditi Ashok.   -  AFP

 

At 99, Aditi is currently the highest-ranked Indian women’s golfer by a distance: of the other nine who are world-ranked, no one is in the top 600 and only one figures in the top 800. She is the first to scale those heights since Smriti Mehra, who was the first Indian to play on the LPGA tour. As the only competitor representing her nation on the LPGA, Aditi now finds herself — as she did two years ago in Rio — cast as a flag-bearer for Indian golf.

“I do feel like that sometimes,” she says. “Obviously it’s not on my mind when I’m playing the rounds but I do know that it’s not just me playing. It’s a bigger thing. People look at me as the golfer from India and not just me. I understand that and I’m proud of it. I’ve lived in India and practised here and just travelled to international tournaments and made it happen. So I’m sure that if I can do it, other girls in India who have that dream can also make it happen. One way I see it is this: if I keep doing better, it will motivate more girls in India to think of golf as a profession.”

Ever since she was introduced to the game at five-and-a-half years of age, Aditi’s focus and drive have been unwavering. “She was like a racehorse; you just had to direct her and she’d go there,” says Bamby Randhawa, who was Aditi’s first coach at the Bangalore Golf Club. “She definitely stood out from the rest: she had that fire in her belly. She was always on time and very serious about her game. At the driving range, she’d fight over not getting enough balls to hit when others would be happy to go home at the end of a session.”

That attitude to training has not changed one bit. “If you don’t work hard, then having talent doesn’t really mean anything,” she says.

“Beyond a point everyone is talented — that’s why they’re on tour or turning pro.”

The week before the 2016 Olympics, Aditi was ranked 462 in the world. Twenty-one months later, she had risen to a career-best 65 (May 14, 2018). But Aditi does not regard her own progress as anything extraordinary. “I think I could’ve done better. I know a lot of people think that because I’m from India and I’m the first person to be doing most of the things I’m doing...[I’ve done something remarkable]. But if I look around at the LPGA, I feel that everyone is already the same age as me and they have two or three wins. Someone like Lydia Ko, who is just a year older than me, has 15 wins. So in that sense, I look around and feel that I’m not as good as I could be. Maybe I could be better. I do try and motivate myself that way but it has been a good three years to start my career.”

Aditi with her father/caddie. “Having family alongside makes a big difference. With all the travel home feels pretty far away.”   -  Getty Images

 

This past year, Aditi was ranked second on the LPGA for putting average (28.67). It should not surprise anyone who has followed her career because her short game, on which she has worked relentlessly, has been her strength since her amateur years. Her iron play needs improvement, she admits.

For 2019, Aditi’s goals are clear. “I’ve finished in the top-10 in the LPGA three times, but on none of those occasions was I actually in contention for the title,” she says. “I’ve won three times in Europe and finished in the top three or four but I’ve never done that in the LPGA. So my first goal is to get myself in that position. To be in the leader-group or to be contending for the trophy. And then obviously if I get a chance to win that would be great. But my primary focus is to not just compete but actually be in a position where I have a chance to win every week. And, obviously, I want to focus on the majors. My best finish so far is tied 22, so that’s another improvement I want to make.”

No Indian woman has ever won an LPGA Tour event. It only seems a matter of time before Aditi crosses that line. It would mark yet another slice of history for someone in the habit of creating it, without fuss or fanfare.