Updated: August 8, 2021 11:42:52 pm
Aditi Ashok strutted out on the 18th green as though she was always meant to be there. Tipping her hat, waving one hand, flinging her club with the other, and soaking in the thunderous applause from the few hundred people who stood in a semicircle at the edge of the final hole.
“Go Ashok!” someone roared from near the main stand. She quickly returned to the Zen mode, lined up her final putt, and those around held their breath. You could hear the finely manicured grass of Saitama’s Kasumigaseki Country Club rustle as the ball rolled over and plonked into the hole.
Sigh, relief, applause.
Ashok had done what she had to. Now, her destiny was in the hands of New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who simply had to sink her putt to push the stubborn Indian out of medal contention after six hours of thrilling stroke-play. Ko didn’t miss and, with that, ended Ashok’s hopes of a podium finish.
“In a regular tournament whether you finish second or fourth it really doesn’t matter, no one cares. But, yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals kind of sucks,” she said.
Ashok’s disappointment was natural. But the fact that it went down to the last shot on the final hole of the deciding day, staying in the mix right until the end is creditworthy in itself. Just imagine: this was a 23-year-old ranked 200th, against World No. 1 Nelly Korda of the US and multiple title winner Ko, standing her ground with a cold-blooded, nerveless performance with no one else but just her mother by her side.
These sorts of things don’t happen a lot. And almost never at the Olympics.
Heck, she even made the entire cricket-mad nation wake up in the middle of the night for a game of golf, got them so invested in it that after four hours of intense drama, those obsessed with square cuts and cover drives were experts about chips and putts.
And just like that, everyone started rooting for the underdog.
This was new territory for Ashok, who is used to performing in near anonymity. She came to Tokyo after a modest performance in Rio, with the hope of getting some kind of a rhythm going, given the hurdles she faced to get here. Like other Indian athletes, the pandemic meant she couldn’t travel for tournaments for the longest time and had to practise at a makeshift net at her Bengaluru home.
Then, she got infected with Covid-19 herself which, she admitted earlier this week, severely impacted her strength. The stats reflect this. As per the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Ashok averaged 246.45 yards off the tee in 2019, when the last full season took place on the tour. This year, it dropped to 238.4 yards.
Her struggles to get the distance were glaring throughout the week — she was the shortest hitter in the field, 60th out of 60 in driving distance. On Saturday, Ashok was behind the two other golfers in her group from the tee by nearly 10 yards almost every time. She made up for that with powerful drives on the approach and once she was on the green, her short-game was almost flawless. She had been No.1 in putting all week, and drew nods of approval from her two more established playing partners.
This was a dramatic day of golf, perhaps the best the sport has had to offer since it joined the Olympic programme in 2016, the Indian interest notwithstanding. Saturday’s final round began at 6.30 am, earlier than usual, after a storm was forecast for later in the day. Ashok, who featured in the leader group along with Ko and Korda after three high-quality rounds, started a couple of hours later.
It was a rollercoaster for the young Indian. Ashok started the day three shots behind Korda. After the first seven holes, she had catapulted to the gold medal position, finding herself in joint lead.
If Ashok was nervous, she did not show. Ko and Korda, friends outside golf, constantly chatted with each other: they would make plans to meet at the Village, buy golfing gear, or indulge in some light-hearted banter. Ashok, on the other hand, walked around in near silence, talking only with her mother sometimes. She would quietly make her notes, decide which club to use, gauge the wind direction and decide what trajectory to follow.
She was gritting it out all by herself. And as if that wasn’t tough enough, the much-vaunted thunderstorm halted play for 45 minutes. At that point, all that remained to play was two shots on the 17th hole and the par-four 18th.
When the action resumed, Ashok’s putter could not make up for the fairways she missed and the distance she conceded from her tee shots. In hindsight, her fate was sealed when she missed a fairly straightforward putt on the 17th. After that, any chance of her winning a medal depended on Ko dropping a shot. “Maybe I made too many through the four rounds, golfing gods were like, okay, we’re not going to give her this one,” she laughed.
A medal might have been elusive, but with her performance Ashok entered India’s ‘hall of fame’ of the famous fourth-place finishers. To her, that was barely any consolation. “You don’t want to join that club. But yeah, I guess I’ve joined it.”