Chennai fans have their fill

AT the press conference of the Rs. 10-lakh The Hindu Golf Open — the third leg of the Amby Valley PGAI Tour in Chennai — the affable Sampath Chari, Executive Director, Tournaments, Professional Golfers' Association of India, mentioned that with the course holding well (rain forecast), a course record was bound to happen.

K. KEERTHIVASAN

AT the press conference of the Rs. 10-lakh The Hindu Golf Open — the third leg of the Amby Valley PGAI Tour in Chennai — the affable Sampath Chari, Executive Director, Tournaments, Professional Golfers' Association of India, mentioned that with the course holding well (rain forecast), a course record was bound to happen.

Ashok Kumar sprang a surprise in The Hindu Open. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

If at all a voxpopuli was made at that time, all would have shouted "Mukesh Kumar" in chorus. The 38-year-old golfer from Mhow was playing consistently well, finishing first in the Hyundai-TNGF Open — the first leg — and ending up second to Delhi's Shiv Kapur in the Amby Valley-Madras Gymkhana Club Open, the following week.

Ashok Kumar's name was hardly on anyone's mind when The Hindu Open began. The reasons are not far to seek. Though Ashok finished inside the top ten (eighth & tied 5th) in the first two events, he never reached his best form. On the second day of The Hindu Open, Ashok changed things upside down by carding 10-under 62 to better the course record, held jointly by Mukesh Kumar and Vijay Kumar. "I had decided to avoid making bogies. It did not matter if I did not make a birdie but I did not want to commit mistakes," said Ashok. After being at the receiving end of Ashok's aggression in the last three days, Mukesh was all praise for the 23-year-old. "Ashok played brilliantly and closed the door for all of us. It is good to see him getting into the same form that saw him finish on top for last season and that's good news for us."

Handsome lead

Taking on from the course record, Ashok maintained a handsome lead throughout to emerge a comfortable winner by seven strokes. Ashok's overall tally was 21-under 267 (another record) while Mukesh came second with a total score of 14-under 274. Lucknow's Vijay Kumar, after ordinary two rounds, bounced back to give a tough fight to Mukesh in the fourth and final round. He finished third.

From earning a meagre Rs. 50 a day as a caddie to Amit Luthra to finishing first in the Order of Merit in 2003-2004, Ashok has come a long way. "I credit my win to Amit Luthra without whom I would not have been playing golf," Ashok said, after receiving the winner's cheque of Rs. 1,62,000.

His attitude to the game is refreshing — old fashioned but rock solid. After taking a five-stroke lead in the penultimate day, Ashok said, "In this game if you are not humble, you will fail. And a lead of 5-under in this game and course is nothing."

Back home in Delhi, Amit Luthra, Ashok's "godfather" would be cherishing his disciple's fifth pro title. And Chari would have happily left Chennai saying to his friends and colleagues, "I told you so."

Maiden pro title for Shiv Kapur

Even as Ashok was struggling to find his much-wanted form in the second leg — The Amby Valley-Madras Gymkhana Club Open at the par-70 MGC links — Shiv Kapur showed his prowess to capture his maiden pro title. The Busan Asian Games gold medallist, tipped to make it big in the Asian Tour, slowly but steadily made it to the top.

Mukesh Kumar, the champion in the Hyundai-TNGF Open. -- Pic. K. PICHUMANI-

After first two days, Shiv with a score of 10-under 130 was in second place. Putting fluently, Shiv was leading by three strokes till the 14th hole on the third day. But he allowed Mukesh to catch up with bogies in the 15th, 16th and 17th. Both Mukesh and Shiv were tied for the lead at 12-under 198 on the penultimate day. In a close contest, Shiv emerged winner by a stroke.

"The victory has not sunk in as yet. Winning my first tournament is a special occasion. This win is close to my heart," said Shiv.

All this could not have been possible but for Rajan Syal (host of Shiv), an avid golfer and father of talented Chennai lad Sandeep. When Shiv finished 15th in the Hyundai-TNGF Open, he was apprehensive on taking part in the second leg. But it was Rajan, who insisted that Shiv should participate. "I would like to thank Rajan Sir (Syal) who asked me to take part in the tournament," said Shiv. He later skipped the Hindu Open.

Consistent Mukesh

There are few who can match Mukesh Kumar in consistency. As a PGAI official said, "He struggles initially. He will bounce back and you are sure to see him in the leader-board on the last day."

Like Ashok, Mukesh too started as a caddie but only for a short while from 1985-86. He practices with his father Nathu Singh at the Defence Services Officers Institute Golf Club in Mhow. Making his professional debut in the Wills Open at Jabalpur in '86, Mukesh scripted a memorable victory over Ali Sher, in the play-off, in the Wills Open at Jodhpur. The four-time Champion Golfer of the Year and ranked No.1 in the Order of Merit list in 2004-2005, the 38-year-old Mukesh has achieved almost all, in India.

Entering the Hyundai-TNGF Open, the first leg of the Amby Valley PGAI Tour, Mukesh, as usual, was scratchy. After the first day, he was in tied second place. He slipped further back on the second day finishing tied third. The brilliance of Mukesh resurfaced on the penultimate day when he fired a round of 3-under 69 to snatch the lead from Rafiq Ali.

In the fourth and final round, Mukesh walked all over his competition even as local pro Sandeep Syal set a unique Tour record on his maiden leg of the Amby Valley PGAI Tour with eight birdies in succession. Mukesh carded a flawless six-under 66 to finish first with a tournament aggregate of 16-under 272. Lucknow's Vijay Kumar who was on his heels for the majority of the round came second, five strokes behind at 11-under 277.

The three events in Chennai saw a wonderful game of golf. There was a sizeable crowd on the final day of all the three events. Apart from the flowering of local pro Sandeep Syal who showed his talent, the other most significant aspect of the three legs was the blooming of Shiv Kapur — from whom the golfing fraternity expects to make it big in the Asian Tour — who won his maiden pro title.

Shiv Kapur, the winner of the Amby Valley-Madras Gymkhana Club Open. — Pic. V. GANESAN-

It is an undeniable fact that mostly ex-caddies and the elite people who take up the sport more because of its expensive equipment and the high amount charged by clubs as membership.

Can the sport be taken to the masses in South India despite the apparent constraints? "Very much", says, S. Ramassubramanian, Associate Secretary, Tamil Nadu Golf Federation. "We plan to have a golf students programme during holidays (March 2005) where we will give free coaching to the students." Ramassubramanian feels it will take time for the game to take deep roots in South India but said the seeds for the development have already been sown.

At the Cosmo-TNGF course in Nandanam, those aged between seven and 21 years of age can play at the course by paying Rs. 150 per month, said Ramassubramanian. "The interest is there. Whether the amateurs take it up or not, it is up to them. We are ready to support anybody who does well either in the amateur or professional level," he said.

Golf has undergone lot of changes and has grown in popularity over the years, especially in South India. Some major plans are on the anvil and if those bear fruit, the game will reach out to the masses in a bigger way than before.