Rough diamonds: Golf may be an individual sport, but competitive success is rarely a lonely affair
Circa 1989. My dad, in what was an impenetrable choice of a teenage golf instruction book, introduced me to Gary Player’s Golf Begins at 50. Free body rotation, strong grip and lots of action of the hand through the ball. I still have this book, and I remember trying to emulate the swing Player advised against: the “square-to-square” swing popularized by players like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman who hit tall, straight records. While I don’t know of any pro who have adopted the ‘passing swing’, there are elements of it in some of the swings today, especially with players trying to reduce the strain on their backs. .
I found myself leafing through this book after recently reading about the disappearance of Player’s better half, Vivienne Player. I vaguely remembered reading about her in the book. Turns out Player dedicated the book to him and, in the Acknowledgments section, wrote that their partnership was the cornerstone of his success. “My success is our success,” he wrote, referring to Vivienne’s workload in a marriage that allowed her to focus solely on her career.
The player is not modest. And that mention remains the only example I’ve come across of him recognizing someone else’s contribution to his Hall of Fame career. Now, after 60 years of navigating the configuration of life together, a partnership that has given birth to six children and 22 grandchildren, Player finds himself adrift, deprived of the anchor of his life. Commissions, sir, on what must be your biggest loss.
Speaking of partnerships, we talked a little bit about Aditi Ashok’s mother on her bag at Tokyo 2020. It is now clear that Ashok’s mother is the exception to the rule: ask any coach what are the parents of young players and watch them roll their eyes. The line between parental support and pressure is thin, and when pushy parents cross the line, it is counterproductive at best. There is a long list of promising players who have given up on the game because they were traumatized by parental pressure to play. Obviously, Ashok’s mother is as exceptional as her daughter.
Now that all the post-Olympic fervor wears off, life will return to normal for our athletes. And that, in most cases, results in abject negligence on the part of the governing bodies of their sport in the country. In 2018, while filming a winter athlete film series in India, I was shocked to experience petty politics in sports that have barely registered a presence in India. In the same year, a lot of external lobbying continued to obtain permission from equestrian sports federations for the team to participate in the Asian Games. The team went on to win two silver medals.
As in 2016, Anirban Lahiri and Ashok returned home and made statements on the need to promote golf in India. Ashok reiterated that despite arriving at the Games, his requests for accommodation closer to the Tokyo 2020 venue fell on deaf ears. The girl had to make a 90-minute one-way drive to Kasumigaseki Golf Course from the Olympic Village while her competitors were accommodated in hotels within walking distance of the site. Did three hours on the road each day, over six days (including two practice laps), affect his performance? Especially since Ashok was still grappling with the debilitating effects of his fight against Covid-19 in May of this year?
It is no great mystery why India’s consistently poor performance at world sporting events belies its wealth of talent and large number of athletes. Much of our triumphs are stories of exceptional individuals beating high odds. Those who score, do so largely despite the lack of official support, not because of him. The most important partnership a professional athlete needs is with the official support mechanism. To focus on competing against the best in the world requires laser focus – a job where multitasking is hardly desirable and, unnecessary administrative stress, can derail even the best prepared athletes. We are always talking about having the right foundation in India.
Compare that with the Thai approach to women’s golf. In February 2012, I remember walking on the sidelines of the LPGA Honda Classic held in Pattaya, Thailand. Today, golf has always been very popular in Thailand, but when the first edition of the event was held in the country in 2006, only a handful of Thai players were on the LPGA, and none of them made it to the LPGA. ‘had done better than a single Top 10. What really struck me during this visit was the level and frequency of interaction between Thai pros and juniors (clinics, social events, etc.) that had been organized. 10 years later, Ariya Jutanugarn became the first Thai golfer, male or female, to win a major championship. The 2016 British Open winner came full circle earlier this year by winning the Honda LPGA in her country, joining three other Thai players who have won the LPGA this season. Asked what the biggest takeaway from her victory was, Jutanugarn said simply: “I hope I can inspire some Thai (girls) to learn golf.”
When asked what changes he hopes Ashok and his Olympic performances will spur, Lahiri had modest expectations. “We could do little practice… but someone has to take the initiative. This is where you are going to find the rough diamonds. This is where you are going to find the talent. You won’t find it if there is nowhere to go and even learn about the sport. Full of points to Lahiri for reiterating the obvious with a straight face. It’s the same dead horse we’ve been whipping for two decades now.
Golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game