Arjun takes the course in his stride

KIRTI PATIL

WHEN the legendary Arnold Palmer gave his 'Signature' to the DLF Golf and Country Club just a few years ago, the course provided a welcome option.

SANDEEP SAXENA

A cocktail of big hitters, innovators and precision players was needed to drown this course into submission.

Already, by the Indian standards this new course was a challenge. It had hosted just a few majors and some tournaments of the Indian PGA Tour. But, in the golfing dictionary this was still a new course.

Still, two minor but telling changes were put in place on the two holes leading to the clubhouse. The championship tee of the dog-leg ninth hole was moved back making it the longest par-five in the country - at 607 yards. From the new tee, it is a blind shot to the green. Also, there is a valley between the two tees, a downhill road cutting across.

Then, the value of the 18th hole was reduced to par-four, modifying the total par of this 7151-yard course to 71.

If these were the adversities for most of the golfers, Arjun Singh showed what it takes to be a champion. When others posted varying scores on all four days, a focussed Arjun fired all sub-par rounds for the winning aggregate of 11-under 273.

On the way, Arjun made history at the Rs. 25 lakh Honda-Siel PGA Championship. It was for the first time that the prestigious 'PGA Champion of India' title had been defended. The 33-year-old Arjun was also the first golfer to have won it at two different courses. His win in 2001 was achieved at the hallowed precincts of the Delhi Golf Club course.

Uttam Singh Mundy is the only other to have won the PGA title twice - in 1996 and 1998 - but both his wins came on the shorter and intertwining Army Golf Club course at Dhaula Kuan.

The course definitely plays longer and there are many water bodies to scare the golfers. "Still, one can get away with a wayward shot or two on this course,'' said Arjun. "One needs to be patient, but not relax on the cushion of the overnight lead. If you have a chance, you have to go for the kill.''

First, Arjun snatched the pole from the opening day leader, Gaurav Ghei, with a bogey-free five-under 66 on the second day. He was seven-under going into the weekend rounds.

Ghei was further dislodged from the leadergroup as South African Wallie Coetsee leap-frogged with a 66 while Yusuf Ali sneaked in through a 68. The trio had a total of four-under after two rounds but Ghei's 70 pushed him down into the second group.

A three-stroke lead on such a course could get neutralised in a flash. There are four intimidating holes on the home stretch on which one could easily succumb to big numbers.

The mildly windy third day consumed almost the entire field. The exception was Arjun, who posted a decent 69, and four others. The Order of Merit leader, Mukesh Kumar, also made 69 as did Digvijay Singh. Asian PGA tourist Vivek Bhandari came up with the best card of the day, 68. But, their efforts came a little too late as Arjun widened the gap and tightened his grip on the trophy. Rahil Gangjee, with 70, was the other who managed a sub-par score on that wretched day.

The day destroyed Coetsee's hopes and shattered Ali's dreams. Never mind what happened on the front nine, Arjun sealed the battle of nerves on the par-four 17th.

In the layout of the par-three 16th and the 17th, there lies a pond, critically located. From the 16th tee, aerial route is a must to fly safely over the pond. The same lake provides an outline to the 17th fairway with the green placed on the hill overlooking the water body.

Coetsee dropped two balls in the pond, an unlikely lunch for medium-sized orange fish. He triple bogeyed and Ali made a bogey. Despite wind playing some role, Arjun was two-on the green with a wedge shot and then holed in a birdie from 15 feet.

The South African lost his way and scrambled to 79, and Ali posted an equally bad round of 76, leaving Arjun miles ahead with a Sunday round to spare. In the meanwhile Mukesh and Ghei had joined the lead group, providing a new company for Arjun in the final round.

''I wanted to win this tournament for reasons other than the prestige associated with the PGA Championship,'' said Arjun.

''Last time when I played at the DLF, I was six-over in four rounds. Finally, I was 17 shots better than the last time and I am much happy about that,'' he said recalling his modest performance in the Hero Honda Masters, Asian PGA event, in February. "Then the course played shorter and the greens were faster. This time it was longer and slower.''

At nine-under, Arjun had a six-stroke lead over Ghei and was seven shots better than Mukesh. ''I wanted to avoid making stupid mistakes,'' he said.

Three birdies and one bogey in his fourth round does not necessarily define the way Arjun played. There was no hint of safe play. He attempted birdies wherever possible.

Despite his good lead, Arjun did not allow complacency to creep in. On the ninth hole, he landed into the left bunker. Others might have played safe, but Arjun not only wriggled out of the situation but placed himself for a birdie. He was just eight feet from the cup. That his shot lacked force and the ball stopped inches from the hole is another story. On the back nine, all went according to the plan before the leadergroup reached the 16th hole. Arjun misjudged the speed and hit a wrong line and failed the par putt. He closed the championship with a 10-foot birdie putt on the tricky 18th and took his score into the double digits. The winner's cheque of Rs. 4.05 lakh was his for the taking.

A group ahead was Feroz Ali Mollah, who made a brilliant rally to grab the runner-up position - there was no way anyone could have caught up with Arjun. Feroz was three-under with the 18th remaining to be completed. Even a par had assured him the second position, but he missed an eight-foot putt, costing him about Rs. 60,000.

Following him was Mukesh, who parred the 18th and finished even par for the day. Both Mukesh and Feroz wrapped up with a total of 282 and shared the prize money for the second and the third place.

Vivek Bhandari ended a creditable fourth with 286, but an erratic Ghei carded 77 and was three-over 277 for the tournament. He was tied for the fifth position with Coetsee, Mundy and Vijay Kumar.

The amateur trophy was won by the fast-improving Manav Jaini. The 18-year-old had a total of 299 - 73, 72, 74 being his creditable scores in the first three rounds. A final day 80 was just bad luck.

The scores:

Arjun Singh (69, 66, 69, 69) 273; Feroz Ali Mollah (71, 70, 72, 69) and Mukesh Kumar (72, 70, 69, 71) 282; Vivek Bhandari (74, 73, 68, 71) 286; Wallie Coetsee (Rsa) (72, 66, 79, 70), Uttam Singh Mundy (69, 72, 71, 75), Vijay Kumar (69, 71, 71, 76) and Gaurav Ghei (68, 70, 72, 77) 287; Harmeet Kahlon (71, 69, 73, 75) 288; Digvijay Singh (73, 75 66, 73), Rahul Ganapathy (74, 70, 73, 73) and Steve Kent (72, 71, 74, 73) 290; Shiv Prakash (73, 74, 72, 72), Jaiveer Virk (71, 72, 76, 72), Rafil Ali (70, 70, 79, 72), Ashok Kumar (70, 69, 77, 75) and Yusuf Ali (70, 68, 76, 77) 291; Rahil Gangjee (75, 69, 70, 78) 292.

Amateurs: Manav Jaini (73, 72, 74, 80) 299; Karanjit Bindra (74, 75, 83, 83) 315.