BENGALURU: Indian golf‘s poster girl Aditi Ashok may have missed out on an Olympic medal by a whisker, and may have lost crucial weeks of tournament play when she was hit by Covid in the middle of the season, but still ended up having her best season on the LPGA since her rookie season in 2017.
The Bengalurean had finished in the top-10 thrice in her four previous seasons, but had three top-10s in 2021 alone, including a brilliant tied sixth-place finish in her final tournament after flying across the Atlantic just in time for the event. She also won over a billion fans following her exploits at the Tokyo Olympics, where she was in the medal hunt till the final hole.
In her sixth year as a pro, obviously her epochal season, the lone Indian on the biggest Tour also got a backer in a famous hotel chain, with whom she signed a two-year partnership deal.
Back home after 5-1/2 months on the road, including playing 17 events in 19 weeks since the Olympics, the 23-year-old is looking to get some much-needed rest before getting back into shape for the 2022 season. In an exclusive chat with TOI, she spoke on a variety of topics. Excerpts:

You had a fine top-10 finish in the season-ending event on the LET, would you say that was a reflection of the year you have had?
Yes, in some ways. Obviously, I’ve done a lot better on the LET many times than the ninth-place finish. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. I think it was good to finish the year with a top 10, especially considering I’ve played so many tournaments in a row this year. Although I was a bit tired, being the last event of the year, it was still a good performance for me.
Two weeks earlier, you ended up tied 6th in your final event on the LPGA, your third top-10 of the season. Would you say this was by far the best season in your five years on the mother of all Tours?
Yes, as a golfer first and personally, knowing how much difficulty I had this season, whether it was with the schedule, or with the travel or catching Covid-19 in the middle of the year and having to stop in the middle. With all those things, I think it was a great season. The fact that I didn’t win any tournament, which is usually a sign of a great year, but still, I think there were so many things I did good this year. Like you mentioned the three top 10s and the fourth place at the Olympics. All those were great, and especially finishing top 10. I was playing in Saudi (Arabia) the week before and I had to fly to Florida, basically the day after (on Monday) and reached Florida on Tuesday. I finished top 10 even though you can say I wasn’t as well prepared compared to you know, being in the US for the whole week before or having that rest the week before.
And I also changed my irons that week in Florida. It was something I was planning to do but because the season was towards the end. And I wanted to try playing proper tournament golf with those clubs and I had a top 10. So, that itself was great. Maybe I would have played even better if I played with those clubs for a little bit but still, I think having top-10s initially, four years ago, three years ago, was because I was playing my absolute best at that time. But now I can say that even though I had a lot of things going on, I still managed to finish top 10. So, that’s always progress when you know, you’re playing good but you’re not playing great, but you can still finish in the top 10.

What did the Olympic campaign do to your confidence? Are you satisfied with the way you have gone since?
Yes, I think it did a lot to my confidence just as a golfer on the LPGA. Because, up until then, even though I had had three top 10s on the LPGA before the Olympics, I had never competed at that level with the level of players that I did at the Olympics. And playing in front of cameras for basically the whole week but more so the final two days. Playing against such good golfers who are also playing well, at the time was a new experience, because I hadn’t done that even though I have played on the LPGA before.
Going back to the Tour after having finished fourth at the Olympics gave me a lot of confidence. Because even in the Olympics, there were a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t have been fourth. For example, out of 60 players, I was ranked 59th in driving. So, you don’t think that a person who is ranked 59 out of 60 in stats can really turn the game around that much to have a chance. So, even though I finished fourth, I still feel like I put myself and I wasn’t fourth by like five strokes or, even three, four strokes, I was off the gold medal by two strokes, which I think gave me a lot of confidence going into the latter half of the year.
It’s been four months since your heroic show at the Olympics. How tough was it to process what happened in Tokyo?
I think it is difficult as an athlete to finish fourth, especially in an event like the Olympics, where you know, there are going to be three medals and you want to win one for your country, so fourth was definitely disappointing in some ways. But I think as a golfer, you have to look at the positives and build on it. I played great, even though I was basically the shortest hitter in the field. I put myself in contention and I kind of held it together, it was just in the end, it could have gone either way. And I ended up one stroke off the silver and bronze playoffs, I think there were a lot of good things I did game-wise and mentally to be able to perform at that level.
And I had the experience of being top three after two days in Rio, but I didn’t finish it off well, I finished 41st. So, going back there and having the similar kind of start and actually keeping it together, I know I didn’t win a medal, but at least fourth is the next best thing. So, that was good. And another positive was that, you know, so many people got to watch me play in India, which normally doesn’t happen. That was another great thing. Yeah, it was disappointing, because everyone always, especially in India, Olympics is regarded as the pinnacle of sports achievement for any sportsperson. So, to be able to win a medal would have been amazing, but I think it’s done a lot more for my confidence going back to the LPGA than it would have if I hadn’t had that finish.

With the increase in expectations after your Tokyo show, will it put more pressure on you to meet them? Most are already talking about Paris 2024.
I definitely had the expectations of my game, which I hadn’t really met on the LPGA. But after the Olympics, I felt like I had the confidence to meet those expectations and just perform better on the LPGA because of that confidence you gained by finishing fourth, I’d never finished fourth on the LPGA individually. Even though it was just a 60-player field at the Olympics, it still did a lot for me and my game. I think it has added a lot more pressure or conflict or whatever you want to call it, but it has added a lot more spotlight on Paris 2024. And people already are talking about that, but that’s still three years away. And I’m trying not to think about it as much. Golf is a different game. Nobody could say the week before the Olympics that I was the one to look out for and so I finished fourth. Sometimes, everything might be going great, but it’s just not your week. And sometimes there’s really nothing going for you, like me sometimes this year, but you can make you put together a good week.
You played almost non-stop after the Olympics, playing 17 events in 19 weeks, besides the physical exertion, how much of a strain did it take on you mentally?
It takes a lot out of you. Obviously, physically we know, but mentally as well because as a golfer, you keep playing but you also know as you play week after week, you feel like some parts of your game need to be worked on or you would like to work on something else. But you also know at the back of your mind, there’s no time for any of that, because you’re always travelling to the next tournament and the next event. Mentally, it’s challenging and physically also.
Travelling and playing that much, you just keep losing energy, you can rest and kind of recover but you never really gained strength during those weeks. I lost a lot of strength, you can say a lot of muscle which was not a good thing in those 20 weeks, but I think at some level I had to do that. For LET, I had to play some events, for LPGA, for example, I was in Saudi and I got into Pelican in Florida. I didn’t have to play in Florida that week, but I did. I flew all the way there and I played and finished tied six and I managed to qualify for the first major of the year, because I went from outside the top 80 into the top 80.
Sometimes, I think it was not a good decision to play that many tournaments. But sometimes there was a good reason to play like I could have been in Pelican in much better shape, but still making it happen flying all the way there and pushing myself to finish top 10. It gives me a better start for next year. Sometimes it has to be done. It’s one of those strange years where too much was set week after week, but I had to do it, I guess.
Growing up, you didn’t have someone to look up to, but now you are the pioneer and the next generation of golfers have someone they aspire to be like. Do you think your heroics will spur more to take up golf, girls especially?
I hope so, but I don’t know if it’ll propel more girls to take up golf. But of the few that already play golf, I think it makes a huge difference that they have somebody who’s done a few things. And you always have to, it’s good to have a benchmark to beat. And by no means do I want anything that I did to be the best that has ever been done. Like whether it’s me or not, I would be happy that Indian women’s golf won a medal, I’d be happy if we won LPGA events or majors. And I’m sure as if I could, with so many limitations of hitting short and everything growing up here where you know, you’re not used to the different kinds of weather, different kinds of grasses, if I could still manage and get to the LPGA and be able to compete there, I think anybody in India can do it. I’m happy that it gives them a little bit of hope to go and perform well.
The biggest thing that I did was when I won the women’s Indian Open. Personally, that was an important tournament for me, because I played it as an amateur for almost six, seven years. And I’d always played there, seen all the European Tour players doing well, and we’d never had an Indian girl win. So, that was always my goal to win that tournament. And it is just one more thing that I did, which I felt like, okay, now, every Indian girl who plays the event, can see that an Indian has won and can try and beat that as well. Yeah, small things like that definitely help. And it’s obviously a lot different today. Women’s golf now is a lot different than when I was growing up, where it was very few and far between where you saw great performances.
Unlike a few disciplines, there is insufficient funding for golf. Do you think the government and other sports foundations can do more to help talented players?
I think you can always do more, you can always do better, especially when you compare some of the other countries who sent golf teams to the Olympics. Compared to what they had done, whether it was advanced practice, or whether it was staying closer to the golf course, so many things, which you can’t say, oh, it’s because of that they performed better or worse. Sometimes, you do everything, and then you don’t win a medal. But still, it should not be that you never win a medal for the lack of preparation or lack of planning. It should be something which was truly, oh somebody outplayed me and that’s why I didn’t win a medal. I think we still have a long way to go in terms of getting athletes to that level.
A lot of the athletes, in most sports, do whatever they do. I’m not saying it’s without government help or anything, but I’m saying a lot of it is individual dreams and aspirations which take them there. And I think that’s great to start to get athletes in this position. But I think to actually be a powerhouse of a country where we have athletes in every discipline, and sports people contending for medals in every sport, we need a little bit of a change in the system. And yeah, more support will definitely help, especially with a sport like golf where it’s definitely not the most popular sport in India, and it probably may not be the most popular sport in India ever. To get more golfers to play well, at the level where you can win an Olympic medal, will take a lot of hard work and effort from golfers but other people as well.
What are your plans for the off-season?
Nothing much, just catch-up on workouts and fitness because that’s what I’ve missed, mainly this last second half of 2021. I really haven’t done much workouts and I had lost some weight, like I said, so obviously gaining back all that muscle, and then being ready, ready for the tour.
Are you back to pre-Covid fitness?
I’m not where I was after I had Covid. I’m a little better than that. But definitely I’m not how I was at the start of 2021. I would say maybe I’m halfway there. I have at least a month-and-a-half to work on it.

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