“When I hit the ball, I can judge by the feeling on contact whether I have hit it well. If I have, I don’t even have to look up to see where the ball has gone. If I haven’t, I just have to implore the ball to go, go, go.”
That may be the standard response for any golfer, but is especially so in the case of a player who can’t necessarily judge the quality of the shot by the sound of the club making contact with the ball. Like Diksha Dagar. The left-hander looks like any other promising young golfer from a distance. Till you interact with her.
Diksha is “profound deaf”, a condition which, according to the website hear-it.org, means she is very hard of hearing and relies mostly on lip-reading, and/or sign language.
That hasn’t prevented the 17-year-old from being the No.1 woman amateur golfer in the country for the last three years and according to coach Amandeep Johl, a strong medal prospect at the upcoming Asian Games, where she will feature along with Ridhima Dilawari and Sifat Sagoo in the individual as well as the team competition. And she will be going to Indonesia in prime form.
Her last event was the Malaysian Ladies Amateur Championship in Putrajaya, where she finished third. With Ridhima second and Sifat fifth, the Indians comfortably won the team trophy. It came close on the heels of a title triumph at the World Deaf Golf Championship in Ireland. The next best competitor finished as many as 26 shots back.
It is all part of a recent purple patch in which she ended tied fifth at the prestigious Queen Sirikit Cup in Thailand in May, a couple of months after winning the Singapore Ladies Amateur Open. Her impressive results have not been confined to the ongoing calendar year either. In 2017, she clinched her maiden Women’s Pro Golf Tour title, while still being an amateur, as she lapped the field by a whopping 11 shots at the Classic Golf & Country Club, Manesar. And she also has a silver medal from last year’s Deaflympics in Turkey.
Such results will naturally fill any golfer with good vibes. “I am aiming for gold medal in both the individual and team categories,” the Class XII student from Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan, said haltingly, but the determination in her voice was evident.
With all three Indian players in decent form, a first-ever medal for Indian women golfers at the Asian Games is a distinct possibility. And they will not be stepping into alien territory when they tee off at the Pondok Indah Golf Course in Jakarta.
“It is a long course but very narrow. There are several water hazards and bunkers on every hole. It is a tough place to play and course management will be key there. But I’m confident of playing well there,” the tall teenager said with an air of confidence. “Korea, Japan and Thailand will be our toughest competitors, but we will not be intimidated by anyone.”
Family behind the success
“Dikkate to aain, par un dikkaton ko hamne ahmiyat nahin di.” (Difficulties came, but we were not cowed down)
If Diksha comes back from Indonesia with a medal, it will belong as much to her family as to her personally. It is her parents who have helped her make light of her hearing disability and get one up on the sporting turf. Narinder Dagar is a colonel in the Indian Army and is not easily cowed down by adversity and setbacks. After seeing his son Yogesh, three years Diksha’s senior, suffer the same ailment, he was determined to do everything in his power to help her lead as normal a life as possible.
“The signs were there when she was just a few months old. She was not responding to sound. We had the same issue in the case of her brother and had a better idea about what needed to be done. Medical technology had also improved in the meantime,” Dagar said.
“We had a cochlear implant done on her before she was six years old. Having one in each ear would have been ideal, but one is better than none. We also had an implant done for our son, but he was much older by then.”
Dagar understood, from personal experience, that sports would provide as great an opportunity as any to instill confidence in his offspring. A product of Sports School, Haryana, he represented the Army in golf and played good enough hockey to be called up for the senior national camp.
Apart from golf, Diksha was proficient in tennis, swimming and athletics. As far as academics are concerned, the family has taken a pragmatic view. “If you want to excel in sports, you will have to compromise somewhere. If someone is representing the country, she cannot attend school as regularly as other students.
“Diksha has taken up the commerce stream as it would allow her more time to pursue golf. As far as any academic problems due to the hearing ailment are concerned, that is taken care of by sitting on the front benches in class and the teacher paying a little extra attention,” Diksha’s father said.
The parents play a significant role in Diksha’s career on the course as well. Either of them is at hand for the daughter as caddie at most tournaments. There was a family picnic of sorts at the recent World Deaf Golf Championship in Ireland where Narinder was on Yogesh’s bag while his wife Sunita caddied for Diksha.
“Earlier, I used to get very irritated when he (Narinder) left to play golf, especially as it would take four or five hours. But since I started accompanying Diksha to the course, I have begun to follow the game a bit, at least well enough to understand whether she is playing well or not,” her mother said.
“I don’t give much technical advice as a caddie, but just having a parent close by puts the player at ease. I limit myself to general encouragement like ‘we need a birdie on the next hole, beta’. Also, a professional caddie will not be able to persuade the player to have some water or a banana against her wishes. But if I insist, she will have to.”
An all-conditions player
Johl made his name as a golf professional and is a respected coach now, running an academy. He is the Sports Authority of India-appointed coach of the golf team going to the Asian Games. The 49-year-old has been guiding Diksha for the last three years, and believes his ward can go a long way.
“Her talent is phenomenal and she is a very hardworking girl. She is a definite medal prospect for the Asian Games. But the best thing about her is that she picks things up very fast and very rarely makes the same mistake twice,” the 49-year-old, a contemporary of Jeev Milkha Singh, said.
“She has an all-round game but needs to improve her mental focus and rhythm.”
Coaching a player with a hearing disability can be a daunting task, but Johl seems to have taken it in his stride. “I don’t find any major problems. One only needs to speak louder and talk slowly and clearly. You should also always maintain eye contact and look her straight in the face so that she can read your lips,” he said.
Playing all around the world has also not fazed Diksha, according to her coach. “She has become a much more confident player the more she has gone abroad. And players and officials are all very fond of her. There is the language of golf which players and caddies understand, and there is very little scope for misunderstanding.
“Any Indian going to Asia or continental Europe is likely to face language barrier. Sign language comes to their rescue, and Diksha is an expert,” Johl said.
She is aware of her strengths and weaknesses, which cannot always be said of competitors of such a raw age. “I can drive the ball up to 260 metres. My strength is accurate iron play and approach shots, while there is scope for improvement in my putting,” Diksha said.
Putting is an area Johl is working on with his ward, especially speed. “Sometimes, I get confused with the line of the putt and forget to hit it hard enough,” she admitted.
But she knows what she is doing and will not leave anything to chance in her bid for improvement. Her choice of favourite player also shows she is not necessarily influenced by hype. Not for her the perennial star Tiger Woods or even fellow left-hander Phil Mickelson. “I like Jordan Spieth because he is always focused on the job and goes about his work without any fuss.”
Despite her disability, Diksha is not averse to seeking advice from the best in the game. During the Singapore Ladies Amateur Open in March, she approached seven-time Major champion and former World No. 1 women player Inbee Park of Korea. “I wanted some tips on putting. She told me that at my stage, the more I play on the course, the better I will get.”
As far as Indian golfers are concerned, she has not had much opportunity. “She meets the likes of Jeev, Anirban Lahiri and Shubhankar Sharma on the course, but the interaction is more of the ‘hi, hello’ type. Players at the elite level have their own schedules. Anyway, there are no secrets in the sport,” Dagar said.
The road ahead
Golf is an expensive sport, her father points out on more than once occasion. “You need at least five pair of trousers for one tournament, and at her age, she outgrows them in six months. Despite her achievements at such a young age, she also does not have an equipment sponsor,” Dagar said.
Hence, they have to look at alternative avenues to realise her golfing dream. “One of the options we are exploring is a golf scholarship in the United States,” he thought aloud, “though she herself is not very keen on it.”
Every talented amateur has to mull over the inevitable question: if and when to turn professional. After the Asiad, her next goal is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, for which professional status could be an advantage. “She may think of turning professional immediately after the Asiad, but one has to consider several factors before taking a call,” Diksha’s father said.
As of now, enjoying the sport is the main aim. “I like golf because it is not a fast game and has a mental aspect to it. I always have a good time on the course as I’m amidst greenery,” the teenager said.
Despite her love for the game, it is to Diksha’s parents credit that golf has not become an all-encompassing obsession and she has been allowed to live as normal a life as possible. Not for her the intricate details about diet and fitness. She still feasts on mom’s cooking and relishes shahi paneer, bhindi, karela and green vegetables.
The normal joys of a teenager’s life are not to be scoffed at either. “She is a big Akshay Kumar fan and doesn’t miss any of his movies,” Diksha’s father informed. She also finds time to indulge in some good-natured light-hearted banter with her dad. “I’m a big Rafael Nadal fan while she supports Novak Djokovic. They recently played out an epic Wimbledon semi-final with Djokovic winning deep into the fifth set. She has been reminding me of that ever since,” the armyman said with a smile.