Mukesh wins two out of four

NIRMAL SHEKAR

FROM being one of the distant outposts that staged the odd event on the Indian PGA Tour, Chennai is fast becoming one of the most lucrative centres for golfers. In keeping with the soaring interest in the amateur game, the professional game too has come a long way in the southern metropolis.

Mukesh Kumar, the winner of The Hindu Open and the Hyundai Open in Chennai, in action.-N. BALAJI

With the Tamil Nadu Golf Federation (TNGF) joining hands with longtime sponsors such as The Hindu newspaper group, and relatively new supporters of the game such as Colorplus and Hyundai Motors, what used to be a week-long - perhaps two weeks long - pro season in Chennai now runs a full month.

The Chennai leg of the Hero Honda Tour began with the TNGF Open at the Cosmopolitan Club course and ended with the Hyundai Open at the Gymkhana Club course and these sandwiched two other tournaments, the Colorplus Open and The Hindu Open.

With a total prize money of a little under Rs. 30 lakhs on offer, some of the country's finest golfers pitched tent in Chennai and the game's many addicts in the city had a helluva time following the pros through three weeks at the Cosmopolitan Club and then for a week at the Gymkhana Club course.

With multi-national companies such as Hyundai and Ford, to name only two, seeking memberships for their employees - few nations have as many golf fanatics as does Korea - the once deserted golf courses of Chennai are now as busy as the Churchgate station in Mumbai at rush hour!

Not a minute of daylight is wasted on any of these courses as a succession of amateur golfers wait for tee off. But few of them might have complained when asked to sacrifice a few rounds of golf during the pro events at the Cosmo and Gymkhana courses.

Then again, in the pro events too, the numbers are increasing year after year with younger players coming in and making some sort of impact. Although a handful of top Indian golfers, including Jeev Milkha Singh, mostly play in tournaments overseas, there is still tremendous strength in depth these days on the Indian Tour.

This was clearly evident in Chennai as no single top pro managed to dominate the events. In course conditions that are improving each year, the competition was intense and some top quality golf was witnessed over the four weeks.

One indication of the fast improving quality of golf at the pro events is the winning score. At The Hindu Open, Mukesh Kumar, the lanky, experienced pro from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, won the Rs. 1,13,400 first prize with a record aggregate of 18-under 270.

Vijay Kumar (right) of Lucknow, who won theTNGF Open receives the cheque from Maj. Gen. Anup S. Jamwal, General Officer, Commanding, ATN KK & Goa Area (left) and N. Srinivasan, President, TNGF.-K. V. SRINIVASAN

While a part of the reason for such spectacular scoring has to do with the improvements carried out on the course over the years, such record scoring will also have to be attributed to the improvements made by the top pros.

There was a time when even par after four rounds would be good enough to win The Hindu Open. That seems another century now as the event has turned much more competitive and is played in far better course conditions.

Mukesh was at his commanding best at The Hindu Open. He shot a six under 66 on the opening day to snatch the lead and never looked back from there. He was three strokes ahead of Firoz Ali from Kolkata after three rounds and came up with a nerveless display in the final round to capture the top prize.

The Mhow pro shot a five under 67 in the last round and won the tournament by five strokes, with Firoz Ali (69 in the last round) ending up with 275 and a resurgent Digvijay Singh, the Colorplus champion, doing well to finish third with 278.

But for a poor second round of two over 74, the suave Digvijay, from Meerut, might have even positioned himself well to challenge the eventual winner in the climactic round.

"This is my first title of the season and I am very happy to win here. I love playing here and the course is very good,"said Mukesh Kumar who went on to win the Hyundai Open at the Gymkhana Club course the following week.

Earlier, on the Cosmopolitan Club course, Digvijay Singh and the experienced Vijay Kumar won the Colorplus Open and TNGF Open respectively.

It was Digvijay's second win of the season following his triumph in the inaugural event in Srinagar and the 30-year old from Meerut was a very happy man.

"This is a memorable win for me. This course is good and I enjoy playing here. I was a bit unlucky with a couple of holes today but that is part of the game," said Digvijay.

Digvijay Singh took the top prize in the Colorplus Open. "This is a memorable win for me. This course is good and I enjoy playing here," said Digvijay after his victory at the Cosmopolitan Club course.-N. BALAJI

Starting six strokes in front, Digvijay was consumed by a bout of nerves early in the last round. But he pulled himself together on a day when his immediate challengers failed to rise to the occasion.

It was the veteran Shiv Prakash who came closest to catching up with the leader but not even his superb last round 67 (five under) was good enough to match Digvijay's aggregate (275 after a last round 72).

In the first pro event of the season in Chennai, Vijay Kumar's course scorching first round 64 made all the difference. The 33-year-old from Lucknow has always done well in Chennai and the victory has brought up back to back success for Vijay Kumar, who had won in Bangalore the previous week.

Going into the last round with a four stroke lead over Mukesh Kumar, Vijay Kumar struggled to groove his game. He simply couldn't get his putting right as he shot a two over 74. What saved the day for him was that Mukesh Kumar himself was struggling on the greens and ended up with a 73.

"My putting was terrible. In a way, I should thank Mukesh who also had problems putting," said Vijay Kumar.

In the last of the four events, Mukesh played two superb middle rounds of 65 and 65 on the par 70 Gymkhana course to win the Hyundai Open by two strokes from the resurgent 21-year-old rookie pro from Delhi, Ashok Kumar.

Mukesh, playing with great confidence, went into the final round with a five stroke cushion but Ashok Kumar was on fire over the last 12 holes when he shot seven birdies, four of them in a row. But even this hotstreak was not good enough to help him catch up with the leader.

Mukesh finished with a four round aggregate of 267 while Ashok Kumar ended up with 269. Rohtas Singh finished third with 277.

"I did not want to take risks. But Ashok did throw a scare. He played very well," said Mukesh Kumar.

Meanwhile, Sandeep Syal won the amateur title in both the TNGF Open and the Colorplus Open while C. V. Yudvir scored a "double" too, winning the amateur trophy at The Hindu Open and the Hyundai Open.