Aditi Ashok, the 18-year-old from India who completed an amazing rookie season by finishing tied third in the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters Saturday, stands alongside Thai superstar Ariya Jutanugarn as the biggest success stories in women’s professional golf this year.
Jutanugarn enjoyed an outstanding season on the LPGA Tour, winning the Player of the Year honour ahead of world No1 Lydia Ko. She won five tournaments, including the Women’s British Open, improving from 63rd in the world ranking at the beginning of the year to second by the end of 2016.
Ashok, on the other hand, turned professional less than a year ago after winning the final stage of Ladies European Tour Qualifying School. She was ranked 469th at that time, and remarkably not only qualified to represent India at the Rio Olympics, but also won twice on the Ladies European Tour (LET) and secured the Rookie of the Year honour by finishing second in the Order of Merit. Of course, she also qualified for the LPGA Tour by securing a category 17 card by finishing tied-24th in the LPGA Tour Qualifying School last week.
And yet, I’d put Ashok as my No1 for 2016, and there is one simple reason for that – Jutanugarn had the experience of playing one full season on the LPGA Tour in 2015 and is a product of the highly successful system in Thailand that has helped produce many stars in the recent past with support of big corporate backers like Singha.
Ashok not only came out of nowhere, she is successful despite of the system in India.
She showed enough early promise – winning professional tournaments on the Indian domestic tour at age 13 and finishing tied eighth in the Women’s Indian Open (an LET event) as a 14-year-old amateur – but had to be financed by her parents, with very little support back home.
Her qualification for the Olympics was a tribute to good planning and hard work.
Among the many things she had to do, included travelling to Malaysia – on her own money again – and qualifying for the 2015 Sime Darby LPGA as an amateur. That effort (she won the qualifier as well) boosted her confidence as well as her world ranking in professional golf at that time.
Now that she has well and truly made her mark, it is exciting to see how far her remarkable talent can take her.
There are so many things in her game that is worth admiring. She is not the longest off the tee, but more than makes up with a short game that is to die for. Her reading of the greens and her bunker play is exceptional.
Another impressive facet is her attitude on the golf course. Nothing seems to fluster her. On Thursday, she hit her tee shot into the water on the seventh hole of Majlis. And after making a bogey, she was still smiling and talking to her caddie as if she just made a birdie.
Given that the golf courses on the LPGA Tour are slightly longer, as well as the fact that she is almost assured of couple of starts in the majors, Ashok will definitely want to add some yardage to her long game. That would be one of the areas she and her coach Steven Giuliano can work on this off-season.
Ashok has already spoken of her desire to win the Rookie of the Year award on the LPGA Tour next year. Don’t be surprised if she does – turning dreams into reality has become an art form in her hands.
The field’s chances of overthrowing Shanshan Feng as the reigning queen of Omega Dubai Ladies Masters was literally blown in the wind yesterday as the Chinese world No4 marched to her third straight title – and fourth in five appearances – with utmost ease in the end.
Things did not look good for Feng after the second round of the tournament reduced to 54 holes as she struggled to get to terms with her putting. Two-under par for 36 holes is not something you usually associate with her at the Majlis course, where she averaged better than five-under par for each round in her previous three wins.
However, when she teed up in the morning, the sight of the tree canopy lining the first fairway swinging wildly in 20-25 mph gust lifted her spirit immensely.
“I knew it was going to be windy today and I knew that playing in the wind is one of my strongest parts,” said Feng who made four birdies on either sides of the golf course.
“So even though I was five behind, I always thought that maybe I would still have a chance to win this week and I tried my best. Eight-under was a pretty good score. I am happy that I brought my A game along.”
The 64 was just one short of the course record, and only one of three rounds in the 60s yesterday. It took her tally to 10-under par, two shots better than the second-placed Charley Hull of England, who was equally sizzling in posting a bogey-free seven-under par 65.
India’s 18-year-old phenomenon Aditi Ashok continued to superb run of form, finishing tied third at six-under par alongside England’s Florentyna Parker. This was the seventh top-10 finish for her in eight starts since the Olympics.
Overnight leader Felicity Johnson, collapsed after a brilliant start that saw her birdie the second and eagle the third, slipping to tied seventh place at four-under par following a 75.
In all her previous wins (2012, 2014 and 2015), Feng won while leading by five or more shots going into the final round. But she had the wind, and her putter – which finally started to behave – to thank.
“I think if there is strong wind, the quality of shots are pretty important and I think that’s what I’m good at. My ball-striking most of the time is pretty solid and I can control the trajectory in the wind. I know that it will actually bother the other girls a lot,” said the Guangzhou native, who made four birdies in a row from the second hole onwards, and then three from the ninth hole.
“I didn’t play super well the first two days as my putting was kind of lost and I’m very happy that I was able to putt well today and make a lot of birdies.
“I made small adjustments in my posture while putting. I think I found the most comfortable way to putt again. I was misjudging the speed the first day. Yesterday, I got the speed better. Today I got the speed and the line better.”
The 21-year-old Hull also got off to a fine start, making four birdies in her first six holes.
“It is a good way to end the year. So it was fun,” said Hull. “I am (kicking myself) that I wasn’t able to concentrate the first two days. But I kind of woke up today.
“I told my caddie yesterday in the round that I can’t get into it. And he said, just slap yourself. I think I did that.”
Last week, without doubt, was a big deal for world golf. Tiger Woods made his comeback to competitive golf, and even though there wasn’t a fairytale win in his first outing after 16 long months, finishing 15th at the Hero World Challenge was way beyond everything that was expected of him.
A majority of fans, and critics, expected to see a rusty Tiger – one that would struggle to chip (there were stories that he delayed his comeback because of chipping yips) – backing away from difficult shots and who would not possess the desired clubhead speed while hitting his shots because he was still trying to protect his back.
Obviously, Woods himself did not help matters. He had pulled out of Safeway Open saying his game felt “vulnerable” at that point, and he then went about re-branding his business to TGR and saying he was entering the “next chapter”. That was enough to fuel speculation that the 14-time major champion was already looking at life after golf.
But the Woods that turned out at Albany Golf Club was one that raises visions of an exciting 2017. It was vintage Tiger, really. He was ripping it down the fairways, he was chipping in and fist-pumping and he was pouring in putts from distances that we were so used to seeing.
Of course, he made a lot of mistakes too. Six double bogeys hurt his chances badly, but the exciting part was the fact that he most the most number of birdies in the tournament – 24, which was three more than champion Hideki Matsuyama.
Going forward, two things will be key for Woods – his schedule in 2017, and the equipment he chooses to use.
It was clear that Woods was not the most comfortable with his Nike Method 001 putter, and the moment he was allowed to switch his clubs, he reached out for his trusty 1996 Scotty Cameron Newport, and the Newport 2 GSS, the putter with which he won 13 major titles.
This could just be the perfect opportunity for Woods to assemble a set that he is most comfortable with. He really doesn’t need the money from a massive equipment deal, and with Nike shutting down its equipment business, this is his best chance to do that.
Secondly, Woods needs to prepare a good schedule – one that lets him play more events and yet gives him the chance to allow his body to get enough rest. By his own admission, Woods said he requires almost two to three hours with his physio to wind down after a day’s round.
There is a distinct possibility he could be adding either the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship or the Omega Dubai Desert Classic to his schedule in 2017.
If it happens, there could be no better start to the new season.
SECRET OF MUKESH’S SUCCESS
On Sunday, India’s Mukesh Kumar finally broke through on international scene, winning the Panasonic Open on the Asian Tour.
It was the 123rd career title for the 51-year-old, who became the oldest winner on the Asian Tour. Those other 122 wins all came on the domestic Indian tour, where he has been a force to reckon with for the last 32 years.
When I was working with the Indian Tour as its media manager, I once had a very interesting conversation with Mukesh, who hails from a small central Indian town called Mhow. That’s when he revealed the secret of his success.
Mhow is an army cantonment town and has a small non-descript golf course.
Mukesh spent his childhood, hitting balls at the driving range, which he said had no grass, and the dirt was full of small stones. Every now and then, the club would jar his hands violently.
Mukesh became so good playing in those conditions; he now counts his blessings whichever golf course he goes and plays now.
“The first time I hit shots from a patch of grass, I thought it was the easiest thing to do.
“Today, whenever I play on a good golf course as a professional, I consider myself lucky. At least I won’t injure my hands,” he explains.
How simple is that?
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
“When I saw that he was four-under through eight holes, I wanted to withdraw so I could go watch him.”
– Fellow competitor Russell Knox, after he saw Tiger’s name on the leaderboard on the opening round of the Hero World Challenge.
“My phone was pretty heated this week leading up to the first round. But it went from heated to hot.”
– Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg on the interest shown by global sponsors and organisers in his client after a successful comeback.