Increasingly comfortable under the glaring limelight of international golf, Aditi Ashok will attempt to turn her fantastic recent form in the Ladies European Tour into a podium finish at this week’s inaugural Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Open.
The 18-year-old Indian, winner of the Qualifying School this year, is feeding off on the confidence of leading the Olympic golf event mid-way through the second round against some of the finest players in the world.
She has recorded four consecutive top-10 finishes on the LET since then, and also come through two stages of qualifying for the LPGA Tour.
It would seem that stars are lining up for Ashok. She played last week’s Sime Darby LPGA in Malaysia in the company of reigning world No1 Lydia Ko, and this week in Abu Dhabi, she will try to impress tournament ambassador Annika Sorenstam, the legendary Swede who inspired her to take up the game and has been a constant source of motivation in the past couple of years.
On the eve of the $550,000 tournament, which begins at the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, on Wednesday, she said: “Annika is definitely an inspiration. She’s one golfer who I grew up watching and I got to watch her win some tournaments.
“As a young golfer I watched her on TV and to see her here is amazing. I got to meet her at Rio as well, so it was fun.”
Now ranked 285th in the world, 31st on the LET Order of Merit and third on the Rookie of the Year standing, Ashok said she is hoping her results would get even better as she continues to gather experience of playing big events.
“I would say the more I play, the better I get in competition,” said the Bengaluru-based girl.
“At the beginning of the year, I hadn’t played much and I had high school exams so I didn’t practice as much as I usually do. I also changed my set in the beginning of the year to Titleist, so it was a bit tough to adjust to.
“Now I’ve had a lot of time to practice and a lot of events to play in, with each event I feel I’m getting better, so it’s good.”
The golfer, who took part in the 2014 Omega Dubai Ladies Masters as an amateur, is now looking forward to the unique tests of the ocean-front course at Saadiyat Beach.
“The weather is great and it’s a really nice golf course so I’m enjoying it,” she said.
“I love the greens; they are really huge. You need to hit the ball into the right spot on every hole. Some of the holes are easy, but the pin position can make it a birdie hole or a par.”
Aditi is paired with Denmark’s Nanna Madsen and Spain’s Nuria Iturrios and tees off at 7:45.
The Ladies European Tour (LET) tournament tees off at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club with 126 of the Europe’s finest female golfers vying to become the inaugural winner in the UAE capital.
Swedish legend Sorenstam, 46, will use her role as tournament ambassador to scout players ahead of next year’s Solheim Cup, although for now she has a bigger goal in mind.
“It’s nice to be here with the LET and to be a part of history,” said the European Solheim Cup captain.
“I’ve never been here before but I’ve brought my whole family because we wanted to share it together.
“The first female professional event in Abu Dhabi, that says a lot, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it and hopefully inspire the young women and girls to pick up the game, introduce them to it and spread the message, it’s fantastic.”
The top table, including golf legend Annika Sorenstam, and LET professionals Beth Allen and Melissa Reid pic.twitter.com/g07PFaU0pC— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) October 31, 2016
One entrant to look out for in Abu Dhabi will be American Beth Allen – currently second on the 2016 LET Order of Merit behind China’s Shanshan Feng.
“It’s a very special event and obviously it would be great to win it,” admitted the 35-year-old. “I’m second on the Order of Merit so it would be nice to do that.
“It’s a great course and I’m excited to tee off. It’s a risk versus reward course. I think it will be a challenge and I also think a good ball striker will win this event.”
Her belief in a ball striker being favourite was backed up by England’s Melissa Reid, who is excited to be playing a tournament on a course she is very familiar with.
“I’m very honoured to be here for the inaugural championship. Saadiyat is a place that’s close to my heart,” said the 29-year-old who is 38th on the Order of Merit.
“I always come here during preseason to do boot camps so I’m excited and very proud we now have an LET tournament here.
“I think the course is superb, one of the best courses we play all year, if not the best. It’s going to be a great test and I think it’s going to be a ball striker that wins this tournament.
“This week’s also about the responsibility that we have as players to the local women. If we can inspire one woman to take up the game of golf then we will have achieved something.”
Dr Mai Al Jaber, of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, meanwhile, is excited for the legacy the tournament could help create in the Emirates.
She said: “The event is a landmark event. It will bring together the world’s best female golfers and give Emirati women a unique chance to meet their favourite stars.
“Hopefully it will inspire more engagement from Emirati women with the goal of achieving their sporting aspirations.”
The tournament concluded on Saturday with England’s Jordan Smith winning the tournament.
Being the penultimate event of the 2016 European Challenge Tour season, the $350,000 tournament garnered immense interest, with players praising the playing conditions, the facilities and the hospitality offered by the emirates.
Haitham Mattar, CEO of RAKTDA, said: “We are yet to get a full de-brief of the event, but from whatever I have heard from players and fans, everyone seems to love the inaugural RAK 2016 Golf Challenge.
“The first reactions you get is obviously from the Tour players and they have been glowing in their praise. They loved what we had to offer and had some very good words for the golf course. These players have played the world over, so they have experience of various countries and know what they are talking.
“Really, our first objective with the tournament was to showcase the emirates of Ras Al Khaimah and the variety of cultural, hospitality and sporting offerings we have. I think we have been successful in doing that.
“Secondly, we wanted to make sure the world knows about our wonderful golf course. Al Hamra is now truly a championship golf course. We hope to build up on this.
“The initial feedback has been nothing short of extraordinary and we’re already looking forward to delivering an even stronger event in 2017. With the experiences of this year under our belts, we are intent on engaging our industry partners to ensure Ras Al Khaimah delivers an emirate-wide festival of golf in 2017.”
Mattar said he is open to the idea of inviting a marquee player in the future to ramp up the interest further.
“Now that the word is out, we have already started receiving proposals about various things we can do next year. Yes, inviting a star name is a possibility and we will definitely be looking into that,” he added.
Mattar also thanked the number of sponsors who joined hands with the RAKTDA to make the tournament a success. This included Al Hamra Golf Club, RAK Rock, Stevin Rock, RAK Chamber, BMW and Rivoli as event sponsors, and Waldorf Astoria, Voss Water, Wicked, icflix and Nike Golf as event partners.