Surprises galore as Sanjay Kumar triumphs

PLENTY of excitement and a steady supply of surprise results made the All India SRF Match-play Golf Championship live up to the pre-event expectations.

RAKESH RAO

PLENTY of excitement and a steady supply of surprise results made the All India SRF Match-play Golf Championship live up to the pre-event expectations.

Sanjay Kumar, a profitable outing.-SANDEEP_SAXENA

With the fancied names leaving the stage one by one, Sanjay Kumar was the last man standing. None had given the 33-year-old professional from Lucknow any chance of walking away with the Rs 2.25 lakhs winner's cheque when 64 pros teed off at the Delhi Golf Club course in the only knockout event on the Indian Tour.

Kumar, whose previous Tour victories came in the 1998 Color Plus Golf in Chennai and the 2000 Servo Masters Golf at Digboi, scored a comfortable 6 and 5 victory over another surprise finalist Uttam Singh Mundy in the best of 36-hole title contest.

Kumar, seeded 13, got past Monish Bindra, Vinod Kumar, Basad Ali, Gast Ram and an in-form Harinder Gupta to reach the final. Mundy, seeded 18th, had scored identical 1 up victories over Roop Singh, Vivek Bhandari, Mohammad Salim and S. S. P. Chaurasia before upstaging Rafick Ali for a place in the final.

If Kumar won the biggest title of his professional career since 1987, Mundy was happy with his best finish of the season. Nursing a back injury since December, Mundy's game has not come together for a while now. Looking good to take his first title of the season, Mundy failed to find birdies on the final day and never really threatened to take it away from Kumar. Mundy received Rs. 1.10 lakhs for his efforts.

The penultimate event of the season's 21-leg Amby Valley Indian Tour saw Ashok Kumar, second on the season's money list, bow to Karan Bindra on the opening day. Bindra had just about managed to reach the venue on time for the tee-off after being caught in a traffic jam. But the teaching pro at the DLF Golf and Country Club pulled off a few tricks on Ashok Kumar. Incidentally, just 48 hours back, Kumar had claimed the `shootout' title ahead of nine other pros and won Rs. 50,000. But Bindra was not to be denied on the 22nd hole and Kumar became the first casualty of the Rs 10 lakh event.

As a result of Ashok Kumar's stunning exit, the withdrawal of third seed and `rookie' Shiv Kapur, and defeats of former champion Shiv Prakash, Amritinder Singh and Shiv Prakash, seeded 14 to 16 in that order, stood pushed to the background.

The second day saw the end of defending champion and fourth seed Digvijay Singh's campaign. Veteran Basad Ali knocked him out with surprising ease, the margin being 6 and 4. "Digvijay just did not play well," said Basad after his best day on the course in a few seasons. Singh, winner of Airtel Masters the previous fortnight at Gurgaon and joint-runner up in the PSPB Open at the Delhi Golf Club course earlier in the month, was too erratic to survive the day.

Ali, however, ran into Sanjay Kumar and met his end with a 3 and 2 defeat in the pre-quarterfinals. But the focus of the day was on Harinder who surprised Arjun Singh on the 19th hole after trailing by a hole after the 17th. On the 18th as well as the 19th, Singh was guilty of sending his second shots into the bushes and thereby making way for Harinder to move into the semifinals.

Uttam Singh Mundy took the second slot.-SANDEEP_SAXENA

The following day, Harinder brought down Tour leader Mukesh Kumar 2 and 1 to end the latter's finest run in the championship in three appearances. Sanjay Kumar took care of Gast Ram while Mundy staved off the challenge from S. S. P. Chaurasia and Rafick Ali dismissed fellow-Kolkata pro Nabin Mondal with expected ease. Mondal had come this far after his surprise 20th hole victory over Vishal Singh in the pre-quarterfinals.

Harinder and Rafick opened as pre-match favourites in the semifinals but Kumar and Mundy turned it around in contrasting ways.

If Mundy made it by leading all the way against Rafick, Kumar followed Harinder all the way to the 20th hole where his 25-foot birdie put him ahead for the first time. Harinder missed his birdie putt and lost.

In fact, Harinder threw away comfortable leads earlier in the day. Kumar remembered how he almost gave up hope during the semifinal. "After I lost the 13th and 14th holes, I thought it was all over. But somehow, I hung on." In fact, Harinder's brittle temperament came into play on the 17th when he kicked the ball in disgust and gave up the hole on being denied `relief' by the referee. Harinder's contention was that the raised mud, due to tyre-marks, was on the path of his swing. After the players halved the 18th and 19th holes, Kumar kept his cool to sink a 25-foot birdie from the edge of the green. Harinder's failed to find the cup from less than 15 feet and he found himself knocked out.

An upset Harinder indicated that he was not too keen to play the third-place playoff. The following day, he made a token appearance and gave up citing indisposition. Rafick received Rs. 66,000 and Harinder, 40,000.

After the semifinals, Mundy looked relaxed following his comfortable victory over Rafick. "I would have preferred to play Harinder in the final. He is young and a bit erratic, too. Sanjay is experienced and more solid," said Mundy.

Kumar, too, showed a lot of respect for Mundy. "He is a very good player. I will have to play my best to win." But eventually, Kumar did not have to work too hard as Mundy's game failed to take off. A bogey on the first hole and a double-bogey on the third meant that Mundy had to fight for recovery for the rest of the contest. After the first 18 holes, Kumar was 4 up, a lead he raised to 6 after the 24th hole. If Mundy managed to close the gap to 4 after 28 holes, it was due to two successive bogeys by Kumar. "The bogeys did not worry me much because I knew if I could maintain my lead for a few more holes, Mundy would lose hope," Kumar was to say later.

He did not have to wait for long for Mundy to falter. On the 29th hole, Mundy's par putt from less than three feet lipped the cup and stayed out.

After this heartbreaking miss, Mundy knew it was difficult to stay in the match unless he found birdies in a hurry. The 30th hole was halved before Kumar produced another long birdie on the 31st to end the contest.

The scores: Final: Sanjay Kumar bt Uttam Singh Mundy 6 and 5; For third place: Rafick Ali bt Harinder Gupta (conceded after four holes); Semifinals: Sanjay bt Harinder 20th hole; Mundy bt Rafick 3 and 2; Quarterfinals: Harinder bt Mukesh Kumar 2 and 1, Sanjay Kumar bt Gast Ram 5 and 3, Mundy bt S. S. P. Chaurasia 1 up, Rafick bt Nabin Mondal 5 and 3.