CHOWRASIA'S southern conquest

K. KEERTHIVASAN

Chowrasia, who won The Hindu Open, with the chief guest N. Murali (left), Joint Managing Director, The Hindu.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

A wrist fracture had kept him out for most part of the 2004-2005 season. The freak mishap had even threatened his career. Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia, it was believed, would never reach the heights he had once scaled. But with the victory in the Rs. 10 lakh Singhania Open Golf Championship in February this year at Noida, UP, Chowrasia put the sceptics in their place.

Even though Chowrasia has won many titles in the north and the east of the country, a major title in the south had eluded the 27-year-old from Kolkata. Having missed most of the last season, Chowrasia began his recent journey to the South of the Vindhyas for the Amby Valley PGAI Tour with lot of hope and a bit of trepidation. Finishing fourth in the Hyundai-TNGF Open — the first event of the Chennai leg of the Amby Valley PGAI Tour — gave him an indication of his competitors and the nature of the Cosmo-TNGF par 72 course. Chowrasia has a special affinity and respect for `The Hindu Open', which is the second event of the Chennai leg and which he had not been able to win in his seven previous attempts.

Known for letting leads slip away many times in the past, Chowrasia knew the task before him in this year's event. Going into the final round tied with Ashok Kumar at the top, Chowrasia realised that the best way to beat the Delhi pro was to play aggressively — fight fire with fire, as the adage goes.

It was a rollercoaster ride on the final 18 holes. At the turn, Chowrasia had a lead over Ashok Kumar by one stroke. Starting with a birdie on the first hole, Ashok Kumar barely managed to make a par in the next. Bogeys followed him on the fourth, fifth and ninth (double). Taking a three-shot lead from the 10th, Chowrasia began to get jittery when Ashok came up with a six-footer birdie in the par-3 13th to reduce the margin. But when Ashok made up with a bogey in the 15th, Chowrasia knew he was on the winning path. The win, besides making him richer by Rs. 1,58, 200, also catapulted Chowrasia to the second position in the Order of Merit list standings.

"It is very special to win The Hindu Open. This is one of the oldest and historic professional golf events in South India and having my name etched on the Trophy along with the game's greats such as Rohtas Singh and Gaurav Ghei among others makes it all the more exceptional," said Chowrasia. "Over the last 18 holes, it was too close a call and all eyes must have been on Ashok Kumar as he is the defending champion here. I am really happy putting together a good final round to walk away victorious," said `Chip-Putt', as Chowrasia is fondly known among his peers. "I am very happy to win my first title in South India. My putting on the final day made all the difference."

After firing a four-round course record of 23-under 265 to retain the Rs. 10 lakh Hyundai-TNGF Open at the Cosmo-TNGF course, Mukesh Kumar of Mhow (Military Headquarters of War) lapsed into coma, in a manner of speaking, at the `Hindu Open'. So bad was the 39-year-old's putting that he apparently broke one of his clubs. "Putting bad, driving bad," Mukesh Kumar remarked on the second day after submitting a card of 71. Mukesh started to get back his rhythm in the last two rounds. From being 32nd on the first day, he jumped to sixth place in the final round, with his scores in the last three days reading 71, 67 and 64.

The Hyundai-Madras Gymkhana Club Open at the par-70 MGC links showed yet another facet of Mukesh's fighting abilities. Just when a section thought that Mukesh would, at best, finish among the top 10, he displayed his wares, sending on-lookers into raptures, and finished joint second along with S. Madaiah. "Look at his sense of direction," exclaimed a lady spectator after Mukesh's wonderful driving and putting on the fourth and final day.

Mukesh was nowhere in the reckoning at the end of 36 holes. Slowly and steadily, he clawed his way back. At the end of the penultimate day, he was trailing in third place behind Madaiah and Ashok Kumar. With just two birdies and two bogies (he incurred a penalty in the 5th after his Tee shot deflected into the water) in the front-nine, Mukesh pulled up his socks in the back-nine, carding a three-under.

Trailing the leaders, Ashok and Madaiah, by two strokes till the par-4 15th, Mukesh reduced the margin when Madaiah had a bogey in the par-4 16th that eventually proved to be the latter's undoing. Requiring a birdie on the last hole (after Madaiah made a par) to finish second, all of Mukesh's shots were more than perfect. His tee shot landed on the fairway, his second on the green. After putting a 15-footer birdie, Mukesh waved his right arm towards the sky. The Hyundai-TNGF Open, The Hindu Open and Hyundai-MGC Open gave a brief glimpse of Mukesh's putting especially when the chips were down.

"Everyday is not a Sunday," said Ashok Kumar after emerging second in The Hindu Open when it was widely expected that he would successfully defend the title. Known for his aggression, Ashok lost the plot midway to Chowrasia.

With the lessons learnt, Ashok played cautiously and pressed the accelerator only when it was needed in the Rs 10 lakh Hyundai-MGC Open. The 24-year-old scripted a thrilling one-stroke win to bag the title. Maintaining a cool approach in a tension-filled final day with Madaiah running him close, Ashok showed he is a master in such situations. It was the Sunday that Ashok had talked about after The Hindu Open.

"At this level, Mukesh, Madaiah and C. Muniyappa (he finished fourth) are very good. There is little difference. Today, I maintained my cool and that made the difference," said Ashok, who submitted a four-round card of 16-under 264.

L. Selvadurai stamped his authority with back-to-back victories in the amateur section of The Hindu Open and the Hyundai-MGC Open. With little competition from Prithiviraj, Jayanan and V. Darshan, the 34-year-old employee of ONGC (Rajmundhry) emerged a comfortable winner.

With no rain in the city, The Hindu Open and the Hyundai-MGC Open were played under the `preferred lies'. The greens, or the lack of it, at the MGC links, Guindy, were not to the liking of some of the golfers. Ashok Kumar said the greens were not in good condition, as a result of which the ball bumped awkwardly, making putting difficult.

The Chennai leg of the Amby Valley PGAI Tour gave enough hints of the growing popularity of the sport. However, it also brought to light the inadequate number of professional golfers from Chennai. Sandeep Syal was the lone representative from the city.

Neighbour in the tee party

OF the six Pakistan golfers who took part in the Southern Swing Amby Valley PGAI Tour, Matloob Ahmed Rana stood out with his consistent performance. The 27-year-old finished fourth in the Hero Honda Open in Bangalore, eighth in The Hindu Open and 13th in the Hyundai-MGC Open. "The standard of golf in India is high and the prize money on offer is much more than what it is in Pakistan. The sponsorship for golf is very good here, which is why we have come here," said Rana.

Being the winner (among 150 golfers) of the Q-School at Pune, Rana acclimatised better than his counterparts and put up a good show. Rana feels golf is poised for a bright future in his country with Taimur Hassan taking charge as Secretary of the Pakistan Golf Federation. "Mr. Hassan has taken steps to have more tournaments with more prize money (the limit is Rs. 10 lakh now). We are hopeful of a bright future," said Rana, who is sponsored by a Telephone company, PTCL.

Concurs Pakistan's golf captain Shahid Javed Khan: "Hassan has taken steps to increase the prize money. There are lot of good, talented professionals but only few juniors."

Khan also recounted the difficulties he faced while scouting for sponsorships. "Despite having golf companies in Pakistan, none of them offered to support me when I approached them," said Javed, who added that the system is getting better now.

Last year, seven professionals from Pakistan qualified from the Q-School, but were sent back due to visa problems. "This time we plan to get multiple visas and play the rest of the year," said Khan.