'I'll move ahead, but slowly'

RAKESH RAO

TILL the other day, Harmeet Kahlon was just another golf professional whose claim to fame was his impressive record as a one-time leading amateur. He was considered good but not quite good enough. He had the Arjuna Award to show, but not a medal from the 1998 Asian Games.

Kahlon is greeted by Vijay Kumar (right) and runner-up Prayad Marksaeng after the final round.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

All this while, Kahlon did not despair. He worked hard on his golf. He took his time, perhaps a bit too much for the liking of his playing partners, to plan and play his shots. Finally, Kahlon's patience paid off. After 31 months of turning professional, the 31-year-old had his week on the course. And what a week it turned out to be.

Kahlon's wait for his first professional success ended when he scripted the climax of the $300,000 Hero Honda Masters at Gurgaon's DLF Golf and Country Club course. Such was the situation that Kahlon could afford the luxury of a bogey and still claim the winner's cheque of $48,450.

It was not until the final morning that anyone actually gave Kahlon any real chance of winning the title. Right from the eve of the event, the focus remained on holder Arjun Atwal, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, twice-champion Jyoti Randhawa and Delhi's eternal favourite, Gaurav Ghei. Even as Kahlon kept himself in the hunt, not many believed that he could keep up the good work for long. Eventually, much to the delight of the huge gallery, Kahlon held on to his one-stroke lead, gained from a timely birdie on the 17th hole.

Indeed, Kahlon's maiden title came late, but what made the wait worthwhile was the sheer magnitude of the success.

"It just had to be something as big as this, the Hero Honda Masters. It was destined to be in India, with my people watching. It was great," said Kahlon.

The triumph opened up several avenues for the Chandigarh golfer. He now enjoys a two-year exemption on the Asian PGA Tour and can now look forward to qualify for the Japanese and the European Tours.

If one takes a look at Kahlon's golfing career, consistency is one element that stands out. Titles may have eluded him but he has come close to winning on several occasions. In the very first year as a pro on the Indian Tour, he finished runner-up thrice. Out of these, the closest Kahlon came to winning was in the Surya Nepal Masters where he lost a three-way play-off.

But the season saw Kahlon make the 'cut' in all the 15 events he played and had top-10 finishes in nine outings. His earnings stood at Rs. 4,18,678 and brought him the 'Rookie of the Year' Award.

In the following season, Kahlon finished joint second in the Ford-MGC Open, maintained a 100 per cent record when it came to making the 'cut' in 14 appearances on the Indian Tour and earned Rs. 3,82,264 with seven top-10 finishes.

Last year, Kahlon ended up 62nd on the APGA Order of Merit - a huge leap from 144 in the previous season. "Honestly, I was not unhappy with the placing. I had missed the top-60 bracket by about 500 dollars. But I knew, I had to work hard. Try and improve. Once the game improves, the titles follow," says the man from Chandigarh.

It is not that Kahlon did not have the taste of a title-triumph. Before the Hero Honda Masters title came along, Kahlon cherished his victory in the 1997 Asia Pacific championship at Hong Kong as the most thrilling moment of his career. And his best round : A seven-under 65 in the 1996 Singapore amateur championship.

Several close misses made Kahlon take the help of noted Italian trainer Donato di Poznano. "He has been a tremendous help. Even during the Masters, I was in regular touch with him and he kept reminding me to stick to the game-plan," acknowledges Kahlon.

In fact, one of the most striking aspect of Kahlon's personality is, his readiness to remember all those who backed him all along.

"I owe a lot to a lot of people. India Cements' Mr. N. Srinivasan, who believed in me from my amateur days. My employers Oil India have been kind in making it possible for me to concentrate on my golf. Hero Honda have supported my coaching and of course, my wife Shalini, my family and all my friends who've been so supportive even when I was not winning anything," says Kahlon.

Sharing what he described as a "secret weapon" behind his Masters' success, Kahlon said, "it was American sports psychologist Dr. Deborah Graham whose advice helped me handle the pressure-situations during the Masters. She changed my game completely. She made a big difference by teaching me how to handle pressure. 'Stay in the present, concentrate on the process and not on the result.' Her words kept me focussed and I was pretty relaxed out there," were the words of the champion, who had three-putted just once on way to the coveted title.

Kahlon was also quick to thank God for showing him the way. "Mata Vaishno Devi has given me lot of strength," says this firm believer in God.

Looking ahead, Kahlon has now set his eyes on qualifying for the Japanese Tour. "Jeev told me that the Japanese Tour is a good preparation before one attempts to make it to the European and the US Tours."

But before that, Kahlon will continue to do what he has always been known for. Work tirelessly on his game. He is well aware that he needs to speed up his game on the course. That is why Kahlon has made his caddie wear a stop-watch around his neck. Having said that, Kahlon's parting shot sounds rather amusing, "I'll move ahead, but slowly."