HEROES from home make their mark

RAKESH RAO

Young Turk... Jaiveer Virk in action at the Indian Open.-SANDEEP SAXENA

AN Indian finished runner-up and nine others followed him in the top-20 list of the $300,000 Hero Honda Indian Open. Collectively, this was the best advertisement for the country's growing golfing depth at home.

The fact that domestic tour regulars like Mukesh Kumar and Ashok Kumar were among the five Indians in the top-10 bracket was indeed very heartening. It was also a reinforcement of the belief that the Indian Tour was getting bigger and better, with the home bred pros proving they have it in them to match some of the leading names of other tours.

Before Gaurav Ghei made his now-familiar last-day charge to challenge the eventual champion Thaworn Wiratchant, the trio of Jyoti Randhawa, his brother-in-law Digvijay Singh and Jaiveer Virk were once delightfully placed to have a crack at the title. Even as the threesome failed to fire on the final day, Mukesh Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Shiv Kapur made it to the top-10 by saving their best for the last.

Much was expected of Arjun Atwal, the lone pro from the USPGA Tour in the field for the Open, but he could not produce his best and eventually finished 11th along with Shamim Khan, Virk and America's Scott Taylor. Ghei was indeed the man to watch on the final day. Though it was Ghei's birthday and he made a gallant charge, it was not his day. After narrowly missing three birdie-putts in succession on the inward nine, Ghei knew he had let Wiratchant get away. He eventually managed to finish in great style with a chip-in birdie. He finished a clear second ahead of South Africa's Hendrik Buhrmann.

Mukesh Kumar, the man who has ruled the domestic tour in recent years, tied for the sixth spot with Jyoti Randhawa after a final-round 68. Interestingly, last year, too, Mukesh had shot an aggregate of 279, to share the fifth spot with Wiratchant and emerge as the best Indian in the event.

Mukesh, whose maiden triumph at the Delhi Golf Club came in the Rs. 50 lakh PSPB Open in April, is showing signs of growing in confidence even while competing against over<147,1,7>seas challengers. In fact, he could have been better off had he not double-bogeyed the ninth hole on the final afternoon. Randhawa looked on target when he was 12-under after seven holes on the final day but thereafter, dropped three shots on the remaining holes to slip down the order.

Ashok Kumar, the closest challenger to Mukesh on the Indian Tour, gained considerable ground by firing a final-day 68. This young man is confidence personified and firmly believes that domestic pros are getting better with every season.

Shiv Kapur, the hottest young professional on the Asian Tour, scripted his fourth top-10 finish in five outings with a brilliant comeback on the final day. After a double-bogey on the fourth hole, Kapur was 3-under but played aggressively and birdied six times against a singular bogey on the remaining holes for a card of 69.

Missing out... Until the final day, Jyoti Randhawa looked a fair bet to win the title.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Atwal, after a third-round 73, was out of contention for the title. But the man in form, playing after a month's break, was expected to make a charge for a good finish on the final day. As it turned out, Atwal returned a bogey-free card of 70 that included birdies on the first and last holes.

Shamim Khan, who shot a 68 in the second round and returned 71 on the other days, concentrated on being consistent and without being aggressive. However, Virk's fall was quite dramatic. In his bid to catch up with the front-runners, he slipped from 12-under after eight holes on the final day to finish with 7-under for the tournament.

Digvijay and former Masters champion Harmeet Kahlon, who shared the 15th spot, shot an identical 74 on the final day. There was not much to choose between the players. If Digvijay had the best of 66 on the first day, Kahlon matched the tournament's best of 64 on the second day (Sri Lanka's Anura Rohana had shot a 64 on the first day). In fact, at one stage, Digvijay was in joint lead on the third morning before Kahlon took a two-stroke lead over Wiratchant later in the afternoon. Thereafter, the two Indians slowly faded away.

Those who disappointed included former champions Ali Sher and Firoz Ali who failed to make the `cut' while Vijay Kumar finished a distant tied-57th at 3-over 291.

Among the amateurs, Jasjeet Singh took the honours with a score of two-over 290 that included a last round of 76. Simarjeet Singh came second at 292 followed by Joseph Chakola at 301.