Vijay Kumar's greatest moment

K. P. MOHAN

RICK GIBSON must have wondered why the celebrations were so subdued this time when Vijay Kumar won his maiden Indian Open title. Back in 1991, Gibson was witness to some unprecedented scenes of jubilation as Ali Sher was chaired off the home green by a bunch of ecstatic Delhi Golf Club caddies. This time, though, there were a few handshakes, a few hugs, that was all. Vijay Kumar lifted his cap to acknowledge the cheers of the sizeable crowd that had gathered around the final hole and was quickly surrounded by his friends..

"After this Indian Open victory, I feel I have done something, achieved something," said Vijay Kumar.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Vijay Kumar's victory was perhaps taken for granted after he led by three strokes at the end of the third round. He ended up with a three-stroke leeway from Gibson as he finished with a 13-under 275. The novelty of an Indian winning the Open had worn thin quite some time ago. Even Vijay Kumar seemed to suggest that. Maybe the feeling was just sinking in, the feeling of winning the National Open in front of home fans, the feeling of winning a major title after all these years of dominating the domestic scene.

"Winning had become a habit," said Vijay Kumar. "But after this Indian Open victory, I feel I have done something, achieved something," the Lucknow pro added.

National Opens are treasured titles. The list of Indian winners has now grown to five, taking into consideration the professionals alone, and six if one were to include the first Indian winner, the late P. G. 'Biloo' Sethi, who won it in 1965 as an amateur.

Following Ali Sher's epochal triumph in 1991, he himself had given an encore in 1993. Feroz Ali won in 1998 and then Arjun Atwal and Jyoti Randhawa in 1999 and 2000. Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee had broken that Indian sequence, but now, Vijay Kumar has given the start for another home domination.

The Open this time came back to where it started, the Delhi Golf Club course. The restrictions on tobacco products advertisements had first forced it out of Delhi and then pushed it towards the faraway Classic course in Gurgaon. With the ITC Group no longer the main sponsor and Royal Challenge coming in as the new sponsor, the DGC was chosen again, quite rightly at that.

On paper at least, playing on a home course has its advantages. Yet, men like Gaurav Ghei and Vivek Bhandari, failed to even make the 'cut' while the two-time winner, Ali Sher, also a 'home-grown', finished joint 61st. The point to note was none of them were in any great form in the run-up to the tournament, though Ghei did express the hope that his game might "come around during the week."

A 76 in the opening round brought about Ghei's doom. Though he shot an even-par 72 in the second round, there was no recovery for the Delhi man who had won a memorable title on the very same course back in 1995, when he was crowned the champion in the first Asian PGA Tour event in the country, the Gadgil Western Masters.

Till todate, Vijay Kumar clearly recalls that moment in 1995, He feels it was something like a slap on his face as Ghei brought off a fantastic 45-foot chip for an eagle after what looked like developing into a possible play-off between him and Ghei. That, plus a few past disappointments had steeled his resolve for this Open.

That was why Vijay Kumar was sounding so confident by the end of the second day itself when he had forged ahead with a six-under 66 after an opening round of 70 had left him in joint 16th with 12 others. He did not drop a stroke that day when he made all the greens in regulation. If at all he was a little concerned about anything, it was his putting, he said.

The next day, there was an improvement in his putting, though marginal. He took 28 putts compared to his second-day tally of 31. On the first day, Vijay had 32.

Vijay Kumar started the third day one stroke ahead of Andrew Pitts. By the time the round was through, Vijay still held onto his lead, in fact widened it, while Pitts was almost out of the reckoning. Someone who knew the course well and someone who had made a determined comeback this year after having stopped playing at the highest level was three strokes behind Vijay. Canadian Gibson, as mentioned earlier, had started the fourth day in 1991 in the leading bunch. This time again, he was there, with Vijay and Thai Thaworn Wiratchant.

A three-stroke lead can come down to nothing at this level. And that is what happened on the final day. Vijay dropped a stroke each on consecutive holes, the fifth and the sixth, and with Gibson picking up one on the third, things were all square.

The money was still on Vijay Kumar. He was not going to throw it away this time after having so meticulously built up his advantageous position. Both Gibson and Vijay birdied the eighth and on the ninth the Lucknow man brought off a big putt to save par while Gibson failed.

Vijay birdied the 10th, Gibson did the same on the 11th. Both dropped a stroke on the 12th where Vijay produced the 'shot of the tournament', a lob over some tree branches that left him around 20 feet away from the pin. He all but pulled off that putt. Perhaps that lob plus that putt gave him that extra confidence which mattered over the next six holes.

The 14th swung the balance clearly in the Indian's favour. Vijay rolled a 16-foot putt down for a birdie while Gibson veered away with his putt. The 15th also proved crucial as Vijay saved par, with another superb putt, after being bunkered while Gibson made a huge mess of a four-foot birdie putt. Another birdie for Vijay on the 16th and it was as good as over.

"He was able to pull off some of those shots. He played very well when he needed to," said Gibson, rather philosophically, but with much appreciation of the effort that had gone into Vijay Kumar's first Indian Open victory. "He showed a lot of character. Not being an Indian, it should have been easier for me," said Gibson. The Canadian felt that he had putted very poorly on the last two days. Gibson kept coming up short, by inches most of the time.

However, for one who was making some sort of a comeback, this was excellent stuff from Gibson, who the previous week had won the Philippines Open.

Almost throughout, it had looked as if only Vijay Kumar would finish in the top three from among the Indians. Digvijay Singh proved that line of thinking was wrong. The youngster from Meerut, who had missed the 'cut' in the last two Indian Opens by a stroke, jumped up the leaderboard from joint sixth at which he started the fourth day, to the third place.

A seven-under par total of 281, with two 69s on the second and third days, was brilliant stuff from Digvijay. He collected 18,325 dollars and said that he would be utilising the money to go abroad and play on the Asian PGA Tour. Digvijay will have the advantage of getting useful tips from brother-in-law Jyoti Randhawa on Tour. This time, too, Jyoti was there at the DGC, his right arm in sling following a motorbike accident. He and the rest of the large golf-loving family from Meerut saw to it that Digvijay will be egged on through the course of the tournament.

There are times when even the best local support fails to bail you out. Local caddie-turned-pro Vinod Kumar found that out the hard way. He shot a five-under on the opening day and went five-over the next. As though to proclaim that he was not through with it yet, the 21-year-old son of DGC caddie Pritam Singh, shot another five-under on the third day. Alas, he kept up the pattern and another five-over was his final-day offering. That was just enough to give him a share of the 29th place. Vinod was the best among the Indians on the opening day when he shared the third place with a 67.

Shiv Shankar Prasad Chaurasia was another Indian who blew up a good start. He had rounds of 69, 75, 69, 76 to eventually tie for the 36th slot.

Much was expected of Arjun Singh and the way he started with a 69 only confirmed the belief that he would be a contender on his home course. In the end, he, too, faded away and finished joint 19th with a total of 287.

As for the Hero Honda Masters winner, Harmeet Kahlon, it was a not-so successful outing. The Chandigarh man was right there with a 70 on the opening day, but a 74 and a 75 that followed, pushed him down among the also-rans. His best card for the tournament, a 69 came on the last day, but it was too late. He finished joint 29th.

Among the foreigners, Singapore's Mardan Mamat, who led on the first day, along with Mexican Pablo del Olmo, ended up joint sixth. Liang Wenchong of China, Mo Joong Kyung of Korea and Soe Kyaw Naing of Myanmar finished well ahead of some of their better-rated rivals.

Being the first year in which Royal Challenge was sponsoring the event, after the ITC pull-out, the pre-tournament hype was understandable. Yet, when it came to the nitty-gritty of organisation, there were glaring drawbacks. The giant leaderboard hardly kept pace with the players on the first two days. Not just that, there were mistakes galore in the round scores even after players had finished their rounds two to three hours earlier.

The disarray among those co-ordinating media matters was never more noticeable than on the eve of the championship when the withdrawal of Mukesh Kumar, the No. 1 golfer on the Indian Tour, was never announced to the Press. His name did figure right at the top of the entry list supplied. Only after the event started did one come to know that Thai Prayad Marksaeng had also pulled out.

Nothing prevented the IMG, the event manager, from making periodic press releases on everything connected with the 300,000 dollars tournament. Instead, a whole lot of people seemed to be engaged in the exercise of compiling any particular day's score-sheet. More often than not it was a story of "too many cooks..."

Mercifully, everyone knew, at least a week ahead of the Open, that Chiranjeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal, the latter by then having won the Caltex Singapore Masters, a joint-sanctioned European Tour-APGA event, would be skipping the event and going instead to Doha for the 1.7 million dollar Qatar Masters. Also to move to Doha was defending champion Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand.

The Press was fortunate that someone other than those officially engaged in media liaison came forward to lend a helping hand in not only facilitating little chats with players but also in fishing out information on this or that player. Purely at a personal level, that is. Having been part of the Tiger Sports Management (TSM) which manages the domestic Hero Honda Tour, things came naturally to Joy Chakravarty. He had no official role to play but he knew the journalists and their needs. Professional needs, if one may add.

The scores: Vijay Kumar (Ind) (70, 66, 68, 71) 275; Rick Gibson (Can) (69, 71, 67, 70) 277; Digvijay Singh (Ind) (72, 69, 69, 71) 281; Liang Wenchong (Chn) (71, 76, 67, 68) and Mo Joong Kyung (Kor) (68, 78, 68, 68) 282; Andrew Pitts (US) (67, 70, 74, 72), Dean Alaban (Aus) (69, 69, 72, 73), Mardan Mamat (Sin) (66, 73, 70, 74), Soe Kyawn Naing (Myn) (72, 67, 70, 74) and Thammanoon Sriroj (Tha) (70, 68, 75, 70) 283; Craig Kamps (RSA) (68, 71, 74, 71) 284; Chris Wilson (US) (73, 72, 71, 69), Danny Zarate (Phi) (71, 72, 70, 72) and Jeff Burns (US) (70, 72, 74, 69) 285; Clay Devers (US) (75, 68, 71, 72), Mike Cunning (US) (71, 69, 74, 72), Shiv Prakash (Ind) (78, 68, 73, 67) and Uttam Singh Mundy (Ind) (75, 70, 69, 72) 286; Akio Sadakata (Jpn) (68, 72, 72, 75), Amandeep Johl (73, 72, 74, 68), Anthony Kang (Kor) (70, 73, 73, 71), Arjun Singh (Ind) (69, 74, 74, 70), Chris Rogers (Eng) (73, 73, 72, 69), Hendrik Buhrmann (RSA) (70, 74, 71, 72), Scott Taylor (US) (73, 73, 70, 71), Steve Jurgensen (US) (69, 75, 70, 73), Thaworn Wiratchant (Tha) (70, 71, 68, 78) and Unho Park (Aus) (73, 68, 74, 72) 287.

Amateurs: Jasjeet Singh (71, 74, 70, 74) 289; Manav Das (73, 73, 75, 77) and Simarjeet Singh (74, 71, 78, 75) 298.

Formidable at home

AT home he has been near-invincible. He had an impressive array of titles, 48 in all before the Indian Open began. But there was one important honour missing. He did not have the Indian Open or an Asian PGA Tour title under his name.

Vijay Kumar was out to get that at the Delhi Golf Club course right at the start of the Indian Open. He looked determined; he sounded confident; it was a familiar course. But will his nerves hold on the final day? The question kept cropping up till he finally sealed it on the 14th with a big birdie.

With the 50,000-dollar prize money for his title-winning effort, Vijay Kumar is in a position to pursue a serious professional career on the Asian PGA Tour. At least now he wants to give it a try. "Maybe six to seven events," as he put it. Earlier, he had shown little interest since he felt that without a sponsor, it would be tough going.

"I was not prepared to risk my earnings in playing the Tour," he said after his victory. "I have a family to look after."This is the general line almost every caddie-turned pro in India takes. Perhaps they do have a point.

Those earnings, during the past six years, had crossed the Rs 63-lakh mark on the domestic Tour alone. He also had the Honda City car after he won the Honda-Siel PGA championship in 1999.

Turning pro in 1983, Vijay Kumar made a mark for himself in the 1987-88 season by winning the Wills Masters in Bombay. But his best years were a decade later. In the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons, Vijay claimed 13 of the 42 events on the domestic Tour. For three seasons in succession, beginning with 1997-98, he headed the Order of Merit list. He was the Mr. Consistent of Indian golf.

Yet, through the start of this season, something was missing from Vijay's game. He was no longer so consistent; he seemed to have taken things a little too easy. Vijay denies it, though. "There was nothing wrong," he says.

His first title in the new season came in December at Noida. Mukesh Kumar and Feroz Ali were the main contenders for the Mahindra Golfer of the Year award, not Vijay Kumar. The Lucknow pro himself had won the award twice in the past, in 1998 and 1999.

But he was focussed all right at the DGC during the Open. "I have to take it all with interest," he said jokingly on the second day as a scribe mentioned the disappointments in the past - writing the wrong card and getting disqualified in 1998 and injuring his shoulder and pulling out in 1999.

"I should not gift anything away," he said as he looked at his chances going into the final day. Canadian Rick Gibson was three strokes behind and Vijay felt that the lead was a substantial cushion to have on a course like the DGC. "You have to hit it very straight here, otherwise you are in trouble."

Vijay was not as commanding as on the previous two days when he set out to realise his dream of winning his first major at home. Still, he had the answers when it mattered most, like his par-saving putt on the ninth, the lob shot over the tree branches on the 12th, the downhill putt on the 14th which left Vijay doing some sort of a jig, and the great save on the 15th.

His thick-set frame and the lazy walk are misleading. He has proved himself as a tough customer at least on the home circuit. Vijay Kumar is one of the best hitters in domestic golf and to a great extent, he is a man with an all-round game. On the DGC, during the Open, he kept his driver away, on all the four days. He was wary of the bushes. Rick Gibson, who liberally used the driver, noted that Vijay had used the one-iron off the tee and from the fairways several times on the last day.

Vijay's putting, when in flow, is a treat to watch. But it can go awry at times. He keeps talking about it, the need to improve.

His home in the little village Martinpurwa, within Lucknow city, is right next to the golf club. With makeshift clubs and balls, kids play golf there, thanks to Vijay's influence. The hefty 34-year-old 'Lucknawi' is known to help budding players with any kind of assistance including monetary.

This time, however, they all must have been waiting for him to return as quickly as possible with the biggest trophy of his career. "But look at my plight, I have to catch a night train, there is no flight to Lucknow in the evening."