Kahlon strikes it rich

RAKESH RAO

NO chewed up finger-nails. No skipped heart beats. Just the pure joy of watching the making of another home-grown champion in golf. That was what a gallery of over 2000 witnessed with great delight at the par-71 DLF Golf and Country Club course on a bright mid-February Sunday afternoon at Gurgaon. Harmeet Kahlon sank a bogey-putt, raised the crystal vase and added his name to the roll of honour of the $300,000 Hero Honda Masters.

When all the other pre-event favourites kept going out of contention by turns, Harmeet Kahlon remained firmly on course to clinch the Hero Honda Masters title.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

As long as an Indian made it, nothing else really mattered for all those who took the trouble of driving all the way to the distant venue south of New Delhi. And that, too, someone who was looking for his first title as a professional in three seasons. Kahlon had shown plenty of patience and character in winning the title, just a stroke ahead of Thailand's Prayad Marksaeng.

Again it did not matter that Kahlon's winning tally of seven-under 277 was the highest winning score in the Masters. What was truly significant was the fact that just when all the other pre-event favourites kept going out of contention by turns, Kahlon remained firmly on course and did not falter when it mattered.

Before Kahlon reached the 18th tee on the final day, some of the more illustrious names had cleared the way for the new champion. Dethroned champion Arjun Atwal dropped a few crucial strokes on the final afternoon. Chiranjeev Milkha Singh had left himself too much to catch up with. After driving all over, Gaurav Ghei was too busy hitting recovery shots to be in serious contention. Twice-holder Jyoti Randhawa never really looked being in the title-hunt.

Vijay Kumar, overnight leader, with Marksaeng after three rounds, too, had messed up his chances on the front-nine. As a result, Kahlon and Marksaeng matched each other stroke for stroke until the Indian sank a birdie on the 17th hole.

That left Marksaeng needing to do one better than Kahlon, on the par-4 18th, and force a play-off. But once Kahlon had struck a drive, covering about 320 yards, to stay in the middle of the fairway, it was Marksaeng who messed it up by trying too hard with his second shot. His low shot crashed into the gallery on the far left of the green and took the pressure off Kahlon. The Indian went for the 'pin' by hitting over the water and landed on the 'rough' to the right of the flag. Thereafter, both players chipped and two-putted to put a somewhat sedate finishing touches to the event.

The 31-year-old from Chandigarh received $48,450 as his share from the enhanced prize-money of $300,000. The title not only made his bank-balance look better but also gave him a two-year exemption on the Asian PGA Tour.

"It's great to win when you are watched by your own people," was how Kahlon reacted soon after this triumph. "The feeling is yet to sink in," said Kahlon, accompanied by his wife Shalini, before continuing, "I feel that there was this 'extra force' working for me out there. It made me feel, this could be well be my week."

Right from the first round, there were enough indications of this being the week of an Indian. Atwal led after the first round. He made way for Chiranjeev Milkha Singh at the completion of the second. After the third round, it was Vijay Kumar who shared the lead with Marksaeng. And finally, Kahlon ensured that the title did not go out of the country.

Marksaeng's final-hole bogey made him share the runner-up slot with fellow-Thai Thammanoon Sriroj and Korean James Oh. Each received $22,300. James Oh shot a 65 and Sriroj, a 67, to catch up with Marksaeng, who could only manage a 72.

Atwal may have faltered after leading on the first day, but he had the consolation of sharing the fifth spot, with American Steve Jurgensen. This, in turn helped Atwal maintain his top-five finish in all appearances in the championship. After beginning his title-campaign with a 65, Atwal tumbled following a second-round 74. Thereafter, rounds of 70 proved inadequate.

Vijay Kumar, thrice Player of the Year on the Indian Tour, came into reckoning with a second-round 64 and stayed in hunt with a par round. However, by going three-over on the final day, he had to settle for a shared seventh-spot, with Swedish-born Daniel Chopra.

In fact, Chopra was one of the contenders on the final day. For someone, who insists on being called a Delhi-boy, Daniel lost his way on the back-nine and carded a 72 before Vijay joined him.

Gaurav Ghei was the other Delhi boy who stayed in the title-race with a 69 on the third day but never promised anything big once the final round commenced. Most of followers expected one more last-day burst from Ghei but he just could not get it all together.

But the biggest disappointment once again was Chiranjeev Milkha Singh. Without doubt, the country's best golfer and as keen as ever to win his sponsor's event at least once, Chiranjeev gave it his best shot in the second round. He followed his first-round 68 with a 65, but his game went to pieces on the third day. He submitted a card of 76 but still nursed hopes of bouncing back since he was just three strokes away from the leaders. But on the final day, a 74 pushed him down to the joint-15th place, where he had Jyoti Randhawa for company.

On the brighter side, Ashok Kumar gained plenty from playing his first event as a professional. A tally of 290 made him share the 37th spot with two-time Indian Open champion Ali Sher.

From the two-man amateur field, Kapil Dev came first, ahead of Amit Luthra. The former Test cricketer had rounds of 79, 73, 76 and 73 to tally 301 - 13 strokes clear of last-man Luthra.

The event missed Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee, who could not make it due to visa problems. After winning the Indian Open, Jaidee had topped the Order of Merit last year.

In all, 146 professionals, including 26 APGA winners from 22 countries formed the field. Despite the impressive field, much was expected from the Indian Tour professionals, headed by Mukesh Kumar. However, after Vijay Kumar, the second-best finish came from Shiv Prakash who shared the 24th place. Mukesh was among those who failed to make the 'cut' which came at four-over 146. This left 68 players, including 16 Indians in the fray.

The course, a delight for long drivers, played true and in fact, had its 'revenge' on the last two days after Chiranjeev led with a score of nine-under for 36 holes. High scores in the second half could well be due to difficult pin-positions, but the 7,151-yard course impressed one and all.

In fact, the par for the course was reduced to 71 before the event. The par-5 18th, very much reachable in two shots, was made a 490-yard par-4 with its tee pushed slightly ahead. Several other tees were pushed back to make it more challenging. The par-5 ninth measured 607 yards after an addition of 40 yards!

On the organisational front, the sponsor lived up to the expectations, just as Tiger Sports Marketing did when it came to managing the event.

The results:

1. Harmeet Kahlon (Ind) 69-68-70-70-277 - $48,450; 2. Prayad Marksaeng (Tha) 68-66-72-72 - 278 - $22,330; 2. James Oh (Kor) 73-68-72-65 - 278 - $22,330; 2. Thammanoon Sriroj (Tha) 72-69-70-67 - 278 - $22,330; 5. Steve Jurgensen (U.S.) 70-72-67-70 - 279 - $11,250; 5. Arjun Atwal (Ind) 65-74-70-70 - 279 - $11,250; 7. Vijay Kumar (Ind) 71 - 64-71-74 - 280 - $8,250; 7. Daniel Chopra (Swe) 67-71-70-72 - 280 - $8,250; 9. Chung Joon (Kor) 70-70-72-69 - 281 - $6,065; 9. Clay Devers (U.S.) 69-70-72-70 - 281 - $6,065; 9. Gaurav Ghei (Ind) 68-71-69-73 - 281 - $6,065; 12. Thaworn Wiratchant (Tha) 73-68-70-71-282 - $4,855; 12. Tatsuhiko Takahashi (Jap) 67-69-74-72 - 282 - $4,855; 12. Craig Kamps (RSA) 68-71-68-75 - 282 - $4,855; 15. Chiranjeev M. Singh (Ind) 68-65-76-74 - 283 - $4,056; 15. Jyoti Randhawa (Ind) 71-69-71-72 - 283 - $4,056; 15. Greg Hanrahan (U.S.) 73-71-69-70 - 283 - $4,056; 15. Lam Chih Bing (Sin) 67-72-72-72 - 283 - $4,056; 15. Rodrigo Cuello (Phi) 70-72-69-72 - 283 - $4,056; 20. Anthony Kang (Kor) 72-68-73-71 - 284 - $3,456; 20. Rick Gibson (Can) 69-69-74-72 - 284 - $3,456; 20. Brad Kennedy (Aus) 73-71-71-69 - 284 - $3,456; 20. Simon Yates (Sco) 73-73-68-70 - 284 - $3,456.

Other Indians

24. Shiv Prakash 73-68-74-70 - 285 - $3,195; 30. Arjun Singh 68-71-77-72 - 288 - $2,610; 37. Ashok Kumar 74-70-71-75 - 290 - $2,130; 37. Ali Sher 73-70-71-76 - 290 - $2,130; 44. Firoz Ali 69-75-74-74 - 292 - $1,680; 49. Indrajit Bhalotia 69-69-77-78 - 293 - $1,440; 49. Digvijay Singh 74-70-76-73 - 293 - $1,440; 56. Rohtas Singh 74-79-78-73 - 295 - $1,020; 56. S. P. Chaurasia 72-73-72-78 - 295 - $1,020; 66. Rahul Ganapathy 71-74-82-74 - 301 - $600.