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Randawa pushing progress in India

When Jyoti Randhawa sank a 15-foot birdie on the second playoff hole to win the Volvo Masters in Kuala Lumpur this week, he had come a long way from being termed a "choker" on India's domestic circuit.

Not that Randhawa, a former Asian Order of Merit champion, has anything left to prove to his early detractors after going from one success to another over the last five years to put India on the world golf map.

But this week's victory, his first since September 2003, came just when his resolve had started to waver.

Randhawa, 32, had made some changes to his swing but had been unable to clinch a title despite coming close a few times on the Japanese tour and second in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Bangkok in January.

"I'd started to doubt myself after making a few swing changes. It's a great thing to win because my confidence will just shoot up," he said. "It's like a Christmas present."

The $99,000 purse gave Randhawa second place on the 2004 Asian PGA tour Order of Merit after just seven events. Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee topped the list with $381,929 from nine events.

Randhawa won the Asian money title in 2002 and ended 16th last year, when countryman Arjun Atwal took the top honours.

"Eventually I want to go to the U.S. I'll keep trying till I make it," he said.

Atwal, Randhawa and Jeev Milkha Singh are Indian golf's "Big Three", players who have inspired a serious golf culture in cities where all other games suffer due to the craze for cricket.

Just last week, when Randhawa won, five other Indians made the cut -- a sign of how golf has grown in a country where it was regarded not too long ago as a mere pastime for the rich and old.

Atwal fulfilled his dream by earning the full U.S. PGA Tour card last year. He just missed out for 2005, but got a Nationwide Tour card and 18 starts on the PGA Tour.

Jeev, the oldest of the trio and the first to make it big with a second place in the 1997 Asian PGA Order of Merit, has slipped in the last two years, dogged by doubts over his drive off the tee.

But two top-10 finishes on the Japanese tour and ninth in Kuala Lumpur this week are signs that he is back again.

Randhawa is thrilled that he is now good enough to be invited for practice by world number one Vijay Singh.

"Five years back nothing much was heard about Indian golf. Now top equipment is available here and a lot of youngsters are coming up," he said. "It's a boom."

He feels Indians will soon make it big on the U.S. PGA Tour.

"A lot of our guys are ready for the U.S. Tour. I won't be surprised if in the next 10 years we bring a champion to India."

Randhawa's early career took off slowly, with more than one stutter in Indian tour events.

The most telling blow, perhaps, was when he self-destructed during a gruelling playoff against Uttam Singh Mundy in 1998 in India's most lucrative domestic event.

It seemed he had been exposed as a choker but Randhawa used the defeat as a springboard to gaining self-belief.

A month later, at the Asian tour's Indian Masters at the Delhi Golf Club, he turned the corner, a six-shot victory in an international field sparking off an unprecedented run.

By the following season, he had defended his Masters title, won the Asian tour's Indian and Singapore Opens and married Tina, sister of another professional Digvijay Singh.

His troubles, however, were not entirely over.

Passionate about motorcycles, he crashed his 1,000cc bike and broke his collarbone in March 2002, forcing a six-month layoff. It seemed the season, and perhaps even his career, were over.

But Randhawa's recovery was remarkable, and even better was his form on his return to action in September that year.

He did not miss a single cut until the end of the season, capping a series of top-10 finishes with a second place in the joint-sanctioned Taiwan Open to win the Asia crown.

Randhawa, noq world number 120, believes he can be among the best in the world.

"Thirty-two is the right age, I'm looking to play until I'm 50," he said. "Right now I have only taken the first step."

Life in the fast lane goes on, but with a difference.

"I'm happy with my bike, but maybe I will buy a fast car next time," he said. "It's a lot safer."

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