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Women’s golf in India gets a boost in Rio

Rio de Janeiro – Early Thursday afternoon, Champika Sayal stood outside the mixed zone behind the 18th green at the Olympic golf course. She wore the bright, contented smile of a woman who says she has been on a “45-year journey.”

The journey has been a long and difficult one, a winding trail of outlandish hopes and persistent disappointments. But she has never strayed from the path, which led her ultimately to Rio and one of the happiest days of her life.

“I look after women’s golf in India,” said Sayal, the secretary general of the Women’s Golf Association of India. She made it sound like caring for a precious child.

Sayal took up golf in 1972 and was a national player for two decades. But she made it her life’s work to raise the level of women’s golf in her country and make it possible for Indian girls to one day play professionally around the world.

She is a one-woman force for women’s golf. Sayal established women’s pro golf in India, co-chaired the women’s Indian Open, put golf in schools, served on boards of golf clubs, captained national teams, created caddie scholarships, and partnered with the LPGA for teaching modules. That’s only the partial list.

So you can imagine how Sayal felt when Aditi Ashok, an 18-year-old Indian girl who is the youngest women in the field, shot her second straight 68 in the Olympics, putting her in a tie for eighth heading into the weekend.

“Oh, this is a big day for India,” Sayal said. “Absolutely, its fantastic. It’s been a long journey. The golfers of my generation, which is Nancy Lopez’s age group, we had no professional golf in our country. Now, it’s about 10 years old, and the generation of Aditi has seen this for the last 10 years.

“We needed to get the best girls in our country to play against the best in the world. We managed to achieve that slowly over the last nine years, and we’ve seen the result of something that is good fruit from well-sown seeds.”

Ashok is the hope of Indian women’s golf, a prodigy who began playing on the European pro tour this season at 17. She was too young for the LPGA Tour at the time, but will attempt to qualify for that circuit later this summer.

Forget golf. Ashok is the sporting hope of India at these games. India, a nation of 1.25 billion souls – roughly one in every six persons on Earth lives there – has won one medal in Rio, a bronze. It has won nine Summer gold medals in its history, eight in field hockey, and one gold since Moscow in 1980.

So a lot of people on the subcontinent would be dancing in the streets if this teenager won a medal.

“I think it would be big for India,” Ashok said, “and also it would boost the popularity of women’s golf – in India and all over the world, because golf is in the Olympics for the first time. It would make golf more popular among the general people who watch golf, not just the golf fans who watch it now.”

Ashok is an only child. Her father works in real estate and her mom used to work in human resources for a tech company. Her mother now manages her affairs full-time and her father, Pandit, moonlights as her caddie.

She said neither of her parents played golf until she was a little girl. They were having breakfast above a driving range in her native Bangalore when they decided to go in and give it a try.

“I really enjoyed putting,” she said. “That’s how I learned the game. I started with putting and then I tried the long game. I found it interesting.”

She was also a natural. By 14, she had a full-time coach. At 17, she became the first Indian to win the Ladies European Tour school, shooting 23-under par. She has two top 10 finishes in 12 career starts and played in this year’s Women’s British Open in England, where she missed the cut.

In Rio, she represents the essence of Olympic golf. In a field that limits the number of players from any country, players from various nations have a chance to take part. You could look at the scoreboards here and see such nations as Paraguay, Finland, Chinese Taipei, Brazil, Venezuela and Thailand represented.

“It’s inspiring,” Ashok said, “and I think it will definitely help women’s golf all over the world. A lot of girls are going to know that, ‘Oh, a girl from my country is playing.’ Lot of countries have representation, so it’s really good.”

There’s still a long way to go, of course. Golfers face economic barriers in many countries, where poverty is rampant and golf courses are scarce. In India, there are 196 golf courses, half on military bases. It’s not much better in Brazil.

“It’s much better than it was five or 10 years ago, but it’s not where it should be,” Ashok said. “We still need to have a lot more golf courses and a lot more juniors playing the sport. Golf is still pretty expensive in India compared with other sports. It’s not that big in the grass root level.

“So that’s where golf needs to improve. But having a few European tour events in India, and now a men’s tour and a women’s tour, it’s definitely growing.”

Sayal loves hearing that. She said one of the problems for women’s golf is that females weren’t historically encouraged to play sports in India. They were nudged toward intellectual pursuits, higher education. She’s a Hillary Clinton fan and points out that India had a female leader before the United States.

India has a male player who has made an impact. Anirban Lahiri has won 11 times on the European Tour and tied for fifth at the 2015 PGA Championship. That’s great, but this is what her long journey was about, seeing a woman break through.

“Oh, if a girl gets a gold medal, oh boy!” Sayal said. “A nation of 1.25 billion people will be cheering. Absolute woman power, and for a change the men are going to be clapping for a woman. That is very important.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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