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A Golfer Who Could Inspire A Nation

by Steve Eubanks - September 11, 2017

SPEEDWAY, INDIANA | Justin Thomas might have locked up the Player of the Year on the PGA Tour but lots of races in the game remain wide open. Not only are the LPGA Player of the Year, money title and Race to the CME Globe up for grabs, the Annika Major Championship Award will be settled next Sunday in Evian, France, and So Yeon Ryu and Lexi Thompson will battle for the No.1 spot in the world rankings.

Even the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year title is mathematically unsettled. Angel Yin could, with a win or two, pass U.S. Women’s Open champion Sung Hyun Park.

But no player is likely to have a bigger impact on the game than a so-far winless 19-year-old LPGA rookie with a preternatural maturity and the kind of charm that draws people close, traits that seem more remarkable given how Aditi Ashok’s every move is covered in her home country of India. She missed the cut in Indy, shooting 70-75, but every round made the papers in the world’s second-most populous nation (where people still read newspapers). That’s what happens when you’re the Billie Jean King of a nation with 1.3 billion people.

“She could, potentially, do for India what Se Ri Pak did for Korea,” Aditi’s agent, J.S. Kang, said. Kang should know. He was on the forefront of the Korean movement on the LPGA Tour, representing dozens of the nation’s early adopters. “If you think about the Se Ri story, it has to do with timing. Korea had just transitioned from a developing country to a first-world nation, and then they were plunged into this terrible nationwide recession. Right when they were coming out of that recession and national pride was emerging again, you had this young 20-year-old woman become the first Korean to win a major championship. Everybody in Korea felt pride and a bond with Se Ri.”

The parallels are eerie. India remained impoverished for half a century after its independence from Great Britain. Only recently, as the government has embraced freemarket reforms, has the economy exploded. India recently outpaced China as the fastest-growing economy in the world with a 7.5 percent annualized GDP, has a burgeoning middle class and has witnessed exponential growth in literacy.

Sure, poverty that would shock the most hardened Americans still exists in India but, like Korea in the ’80s and ’90s, a sense of pride and optimism is bubbling up from the subcontinent.

There are also parallels to Billie Jean King’s time in women’s tennis. Like Americans in the 1960s and ’70s, Indians look at women athletes with a mix of curiosity and confusion. How will sportswomen marry? How do they manage the affairs of the home? Silly questions in Western society today but, just as athletes like King faced those questions and changed attitudes in the Nixon era, Aditi could change the perception of women athletes in a country four times more populous than the United States.

“I feel like I’m the same golfer,” Aditi said last week. “I played good when I was an amateur and now I’m the same as a professional. But just being on the LPGA adds a lot. More people know me. People at the golf course recognize me and want their kids to talk to me, which is great. I think it’s good if women’s golf gets to be known (in India) more because I’m out here. That’s a good thing.”

During the irst two days of the 2016 Olympics, Aditi, who was 18 and on her way to being Rookie of the Year on the Ladies European Tour, either led or was near the top of the board. Because she isn’t a social-media junkie, she started the Rio Games with 700 Twitter followers. That number jumped to 17,000 in 48 hours.

She still needs to win. Two LET victories last year elevated her into the top 100 in the world rankings. But a movement requires more. Aditi is still getting her footing on the LPGA so the golf should catch up soon.

“I traveled a lot last year on the LET but I’ve traveled a lot more this year, playing in a lot more tournaments,” she said. “I don’t have a base over here in the U.S. so I’m either staying here (in hotels) in my off weeks or I’m flying all the way back home (to India). So, travel is a bit difficult.

As for being a groundbreaker for women athletes, Aditi shows a level of maturity that makes you take a step back.

“I don’t feel more pressure but there is more responsibility,” she said. “I’m not just playing for myself. I know that if I play good out here, if I compete out here week after week, girls back home are going to read about it and maybe think about playing golf. Maybe just being out here, giving my all and doing my job as best I can, is inspiring people back home. That’s what means the most to me.”


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