Happy with ‘God's gift through golf'

Ashok Kumar cherishes the time when he won his major title but when he finished 18th in the Hero Honda DLF tournament in 2002. It fetched him a pay cheque of Rs. 1 lakh. “I never looked back after that,” He says.

“I eat, drink and sleep golf. There's no other distraction in my life,” says the caddie-turned-golfer Ashok Kumar in a chat with Kalyan Ashok.

Rags-to-riches stories are aplenty in sports. But only a few remember their humble beginnings, like Ashok Kumar, one of the country's leading golfers who rose from the ranks of a caddie.

“The reason I am here in this swanky restaurant of the Oberoi, sipping coffee with you is because of golf. It has brought me name, fame and money and all that I could possibly ask for in life. Without golf, I am a zero,” said the 27-year-old golfer with rare candour in a chat with Sportstar.

India's No. 3 professional golfer might not exactly be rolling in luxury, but he leads a comfortable life — a far cry from the days when he used to sleep in a stable. “It is destiny that brought me to this stage in life and I don't say that I deserve it, but it's God's gift through golf,” said Ashok.

Not the one to forget his past, Ashok keeps reminding himself how he came up in life.

His story is stranger than fiction. Ashok was born into a poor family — he has four brothers and two sisters — in Bihar that struggled to make ends meet. In 1988, his parents sent him away with his elder brother to Delhi and he worked as an errand boy at the Jaipur Polo Club.

“I used to work in the day assisting my brother and sleep in the stable at night. The club also had the Air Force golf course and I wandered on to it one day and watched the players and caddies. I thought of becoming a caddie, but I was too young then. I did not get the job, but the club hired me after a few years,” Ashok said.

It was then that Ashok took to golf. He started practising in the club when no one was around. However, he was caught playing one day and was suspended from his job, as caddies were not allowed to practise golf.

“I was back to square one. I then went away to help a lorry owner who was transporting sand. I remember the days when I had to pay Rs. 5 to hire a blanket during winter and sleep in Connaught Place,” recalled Ashok.

Six months later, when things cooled down, he moved back to the Air Force golf course and became a caddie to Amit Luthra, who was India's No. 1 golfer and an Asian Games gold medallist. “Luthra saab spoke to the club authorities and got me in,” Ashok said.

Ashok learnt a lot from Luthra and one day he challenged his mentor to a play-off. “I don't know what got into me, I told him that I will beat him and Luthraji said, ‘If you do that I will waive a month's caddie fee'. We played on the road, but I lost,” said Ashok.

Luthra, however, was very impressed with the young man's talent and got him enrolled at the Delhi Golf Club, which allowed caddies to play. Ashok improved his game by leaps and bounds and in 1995, DGC selected him to play in the all India junior tournament in Kolkata.

“I did not know where Kolkata was. I thought it was outside the country! I travelled in an unreserved coach, spending most of the time sitting in the bathroom as there was no place elsewhere,” Ashok said.

In Kolkata, Ashok finished third. In the next two years (1996, 1997), he became the No. 1 junior in the country. In 2000, he moved to the amateur ranks and became a pro in 2002, finishing the first season as No. 5.

Riding a wave of success, Ashok held the No. 1 spot in 2006 and 2008. He is now ranked No. 3.

A born fighter...Ashok Kumar hits out of a bunker in the Indian Open.

The moment he cherishes the most as a player is not the time when he won his major title but when he finished 18th in the Hero Honda DLF tournament in 2002. It fetched him a pay cheque of Rs. 1 lakh. “I never looked back after that,” said Ashok.

Early this year, Ashok's career got a boost when the Bangalore-based business and software company, Kaseya India, run by a golf enthusiast, Mr. Girish Krishnamurthy, decided to sponsor him. “I am a simple guy and with Kaseya around to take care of other things, I can concentrate better on my game now,” said Ashok.

According to Ashok, the game has come a long way from the day he first picked up a golf club. “There is a lot more money, tournaments and media coverage now. More and more caddies are making the cut. DGC had produced the likes of Rohtas Singh and Ali Sher, and then I came along. Now we have Muniyappa from Bangalore. I wish all golf links in the country support the caddies. A lot of them have inherent talent waiting to be tapped,” said Ashok.

Ashok has modelled his game on his idol Tiger Woods. Incidentally, Ashok had met Tiger when he was a caddie to Arjun Atwal in Bangkok a decade ago. “He hugged me when I was introduced as a top amateur from India. I asked for his advice and Tiger simply said ‘don't think of beating others, they should think of beating you!'” Ashok said.

He faithfully follows that advice from the master golfer and hopes to play with him one day. “I eat, drink and sleep golf. There's no other distraction in my life. I relax with some music and watch CDs of Tiger Woods,” said Ashok.