Showing the way

Jeev's victory at the Volvo Masters has helped break the mental block that the Indian golfers had while competing on the European Tour. Fellow Indian pros hail their motivator. Rakesh Rao reports.

A decade ago, Jeev Milkha Singh was the most written about Indian golfer. He showed the Indian professionals how to think big. He took that all-important step of playing outside the country, won a few titles in Asia and one fine day, in 1997, became the first Indian to qualify for the European Tour.

Thereafter, owing to a wrist injury that led to a series of forgettable results since 2000, Jeev was almost written off. After winning the 1999 Lexus International on the Asian Tour, he went without a title till the summer of 2006. This was also the time when names such as Arjun Atwal and Jyoti Randhawa took over the mantle of India's golf ambassadors from Jeev. Atwal managed to break into the US Tour, while Randhawa had a few good finishes on the European Tour, besides winning a title on the Japanese Tour.

Shiv Kapur, the 2002 Asian Games gold medallist, proved to be a sensational `rookie' on the Asian Tour and won the Volvo Masters of Asia in December 2005. This year, he joined Randhawa in getting a `card' for the European Tour next season.

Unfortunately for Jeev, even as the fortunes of Atwal, Randhawa and Kapur began to soar, his career appeared to plummet with inconsistent performances. Jeev desperately needed to turn the clock back and prove to the people concerned that hard work paid. In April this year, he won the Volvo China Open and thus began his resurgence.

After nine top-10 finishes on the Japanese Tour, Jeev reserved his best for the Volvo Masters, the flagship event of the European Tour. Like in the China Open, Jeev won with a final-hole bogey and claimed a cheque of 6,66,660 euros (Rs.3.80 crore) — the biggest ever for an Indian sportsperson. The previous best was $6,60,000, won by Viswanathan Anand for his victory in the 2000 World Chess Championship in Teheran, Iran.

Today, Jeev stands ahead of the other Indian professionals, but is very philosophical about his roller-coaster ride. "Today, I am on a high. My confidence is up and results are getting better. But I am not going to remain there. I'll have to come down, get better and go up again. That's the simple truth in a professional golfer's career. I understand that fully well."

Randhawa holds Jeev in high esteem. "When I was an amateur, I wanted to follow him. After all, he was the first Indian pro to show us that it was possible to win overseas. He remains a great source of inspiration for all of us. There was a time when Atwal and I overtook him and now, he is back in front. This is good for all of us because he has raised the bar again. We all know that to be where Jeev is, we'll have to get better," he said in praise of Jeev.

Gaurav Ghei knows very well how it feels to be without success for long and then win again. After winning the 1995 Gadgil Western Masters, Ghei had to wait for 11 years for his second title, which came at the Mercuries Taiwan Masters this year. "Jeev is one of us and his victory at the Volvo Masters is sure to inspire all the professional golfers in the country. If he can do it, so can we. This feeling will help us work harder on our game. Remember, Jeev is the hardest working Indian pro golfer. He has a big heart and that shows on the course. As they say in golf, your character comes out in this game. Jeev puts his heart and soul into his game. His dedication is unmatched and he deserves all the success," said Ghei.

The one person who has been instrumental in Jeev's success is his old friend and former National champion Amritinder Singh. Having played with Jeev from his early years in Chandigarh, Amritinder has closely watched his friend's game. So it was not difficult for him to spot the changes Jeev had made to his swing during the period when he was recovering from a wrist injury. "Jeev is a `feel' player and not a mechanical player," Amritinder observed. "He needed to get that `feel' of old back into his game. All I did was to take him back to his old, unique swing he had altered due to pain in the wrist. I told him, `If you trust me, carry out these corrections.' I reminded him what he used to do earlier. I was with him in Scotland before the British Open in July and again in Singapore. The changes carried out in his swing certainly worked."

Another major contribution by Amritinder was that he brought back Jeev's confidence in using the driver. "In Japan, Jeev once lost a chance to win a tournament because he was reluctant to use the driver. Today, Jeev's confidence in his driver is back. In my opinion, the way he hit his driver on the 15th, 16th and 17th (on the last day of the Volvo Masters) helped him win. I told him whatever I did, but all credit to Jeev for pulling it off on the course," said Amritinder, who was proud of his friend's achievements.

Shiv Kapur and Ghei were of the view that the Indians had not realised the magnitude of Jeev's recent feat. "From a golfer's perspective, it is a huge, huge achievement but people in general don't seem to realise it. What this triumph has done is to break the mental block that we Indians had while competing on the European Tour. Earlier, making the `cut' in Europe was considered a successful week by the Indians. In two or three years from now, our pros will be going out there to win, and not just to participate," said Ghei.

Kapur endorsed Ghei's views. "I think Jeev's triumph, if not bigger, is as big as Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore winning the Olympic silver medal (in trap). In golf, winning the Volvo Masters is next only to claiming a Major. But I am not sure if the Indians are fully aware of what Jeev has achieved," he said.

As for Jeev, he wished that India's corporate world would come out in numbers to support golf and the golfers in the country. "What more can you expect from Indian golfers? We have a good presence in Asia and we are graduating to the bigger Tours. Our business houses can back the current and the next generation of golfers to help them win more events overseas. Believe me, Indian golfers are gaining in confidence at all levels and you'll see great results."