Five years ago, Aditi Ashok was a wide-eyed teenager enjoying her time amongst the giants of sports and being the youngest competitor in the women’s golf competition at the Olympic Games in Rio 2016.
Fast forward to Tokyo 2020, the Indian lass has made it clear of her intention to stamp her mark at Kasumigaseki Country Club, and challenge for an historic medal for her country.
The 23-year-old Ashok fired a stellar 4-under 67 in Wednesday’s first round played under hot and humid conditions to lie one shot behind leader Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden. She is tied for second with American star Nelly Korda, with three others a further shot back.
“Last time I think it was more just enjoying the experience and staying at the (Olympic) Village, seeing all the other athletes, but this time I think definitely here to have a good finish, hopefully give my best, try and win a medal,” said Aditi. “I think having played the Olympics once definitely gets you more prepared, you're not as overawed by it. I mean it's still the Olympics, it's still really exciting, but, yeah, definitely more prepared for this one.”
She is keen to create new Olympic memories and asked her mother to be on caddying duties this week, taking over from her father who was on the bag in Rio. If she was a greenhorn all those years ago, Aditi is now a seasoned competitor on the LPGA Tour and also has two Ladies European Tour victories under her belt.
“My mom, she's caddying for me. Last time I had my dad on the bag, so the experience was just so incredible I was like I want to have my mom next time and I made good on that promise,” she said. “This time I think definitely a lot more experience, just playing on the LPGA the last five years has been kind of, makes you way better as a player than I was at Rio. And I think the Olympic experience was, I didn't finish as well as I wanted to, but just seeing the affect that it had on golf in India was inspiring and that's kind of what motivated me for this one as well,” said Aditi, the first Indian to qualify for the LPGA Tour in 2017.
Many observers in the game took notice of her prodigious talents after she featured in the top-10 through two rounds in Rio before settling for a share of 41st position. Being on the Olympic stage, her profile shot through the roof as she discovered on social media when the number of her followers increased multi-fold.
“I think my social media following just blew up, basically. I think a lot of people were trying to figure out what golf was, so that they could understand how I was playing and if I had a chance to win a medal. I think I had like 4, 500 followers on like Twitter and Facebook and stuff and it jumped to like 14k overnight, which is quite a lot. I guess I was like, Okay now I got to think about what I'm tweeting before I send it out,” she smiled.
With the mercury rising to 36 degrees Celsius in the afternoon, Aditi was in full control of her game until the very last hole when she dropped her lone bogey on 18 after pencilling down birdies on Hole Nos. 5, 9, 13, 14 and 17. “I think I played better than I expected because I had a lot of hybrids into the greens, so I didn't really expect to be like 5-under through 17. But, yeah, I kind of holed some putts and holed important par putts. It was a good day,” said Aditi.
Cricket remains by far India’s main sport which is treated as religion by fans but Aditi knows a first-ever medal in golf for her nation could put more spotlight on her sport. “I never thought the Olympics could impact golf that much in India. So knowing that it could bring that many more eyeballs to the sport was a good thing. People still remembered me as the girl who did well at the Olympics. So I think just knowing that in fact that it has kind of motivates me this week,” she said.
“It would be huge, because women's golf is not really on the radar of sports or people in India, so it would be great for the game of golf, women's golf. I think just as a woman athlete in India, we have never won a gold and we haven't won as many medals - obviously this games all the medals have been from girls and so I think that's a nice trend and women athletes doing well is definitely good for a country like India.”
Aditi’s involvement with the game started by chance when she and her parents wandered into a driving range opposite their favourite restaurant in their hometown of Bangalore. “We used to have breakfast at this restaurant that overlooked a golf driving range and so we wanted to walk in and try it out. They gave me like a baby putter and that's kind of how I started playing golf,” Aditi explained.
“I enjoyed putting, I think I was there for like three hours just putting on the greens. So that's kind of what got me started. And then eventually learned the whole game. And I think as a kid playing junior tournaments with other kids my age was something I never really got to experience in regular life, so just playing competitive sport with kids my age was really interesting for me and that's what kept me going back to the golf course.”
Photo Credit: IGF