Firstpost Masterclass: Only Indian on LPGA Tour, Aditi Ashok unravels physical, mental and technical side of golf

In Firstpost Masterclass, Aditi Ashok speaks about her journey, challenges of a female golfer in India, the nitty gritties of golf from mental, physical and dietary perspective, before acknowledging she hopes her career leads to a revolution for women's golf in the country.

Tanuj Lakhina August 13, 2020 10:31:27 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Only Indian on LPGA Tour, Aditi Ashok unravels physical, mental and technical side of golf

File image of golfer Aditi Ashok. Image: Instagram/AditiAshok

Editor's noteProfessional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

If one needed an example of a sportsperson taking up the sport early and just flying with it, Aditi Ashok would be a great choice. She took up golf as a hobby at five-and-a-half years of age and was soon competing on the junior tour, the south zone tour, the national, and then international. The Bengaluru girl has built quite a few 'firsts' in her career and she's all of 22.

Her 'firsts' have partly been due to her relentless ambition and partly due to the lack of growth of the sport in India. She's carried the flag in a sport that is considered expensive by most and is difficult to take to the grassroots. The lack of inroads in women's golf in India has made for a lonely journey for her. She's been leading the tricolour from amateur to professional level. Ashok is the only Indian on the LPGA Tour, was the first to win the Indian Open which is on the Ladies European Tour, first to play the Youth Olympics, the Youth Asian Games, the Asian Games, and the Olympics. In Rio de Janeiro, in 2016, she was the youngest golfer.

In Firstpost Masterclass, Aditi Ashok speaks about her journey, challenges of a female golfer in India, the nitty-gritty of golf from a mental, physical, and dietary perspective, before acknowledging that she hopes her career leads to a revolution for women's golf in the country.

How were you introduced to golf and how did it pick up pace?

I started when I was five and a half with my mom and dad. None of us (had) played before. We started probably to do something together as a family, just as a weekend activity, but I really enjoyed the first year that I was on the golf course. I think the first thing they gave me was a putter. So that's the first thing I learned about the game. And I enjoyed it a lot. So I kept wanting to go back to learn how to play the whole sport.

But why golf? It's not that popular a sport. There were only three golf courses at the time.

Yes, in Bangalore, there were only three golf courses at the time. I think it was just luck that my parents and we all decided to go to a golf course. Maybe it was just my fate or destiny, whatever you call it. But yeah, I agree it wasn't popular, I was mostly the only kid playing golf in school and for a long time I was the only girl playing golf, too, in most other things. So it's not that I could go to a golf course and meet other kids my age or again girls in juniors were hard to come by. It was definitely not a popular sport but it was interesting enough for me so I didn't really get affected by having a company or not. It's kind of a solitary sport anyway. I mean, you're always alone while playing so that part suited me and I guess that's why I kept going.

In 2017, you said that for women's golf to come up in India, the mindset needs to change. What are your thoughts now?

It's still the same because for women golfers from India, there are two fights. One is to find that in India, sports is never looked at as a career. Maybe now, except for cricket, nobody really considers sports as a means to make a living or play and become a professional athlete. So that mindset has to change from grassroots levels. It's like a deep-rooted thought that needs to change and people need to know that you can play sports and also make that your job.

The second fight is with the mindset (to differentiate between) boys and girls. Boys are always given more opportunities to try out sports, to play sports, they're encouraged more. In general, for women in India, that mindset about what girls can grow up to do, not just play a sport but even go and work and study needs to change. Not just in the cities, but also at the grassroots level, at village levels, they need to see that a woman's place is not just in the house.

How do you see the lockdown in retrospect? I mean you've had time to rest, spend time with your family but there's not been much golf or at all.

Mentally it was a breather and I don't think I've been home for six or seven months for that long maybe since I was 11 or 12 years old. I got to stay home, do different things, unwind, read, watch movies, that was all fun. But maybe a slight disadvantage is that golf courses have been closed for almost two and a half months which is unusual compared to the rest of the world because golf is socially distanced. You can go practice, play on the course without really getting in contact with anybody.

I think as a precaution, we closed all the golf courses for two and a half months which was unfortunate because all my peers, other professional golfers friends who I compete with, nothing has changed for them despite the lockdown. They've been practicing every day, playing every day, going to the gym every day. Whereas for me, everything had to suddenly become 'at home' from March, April, almost May. So three months I had to do everything at home which was limiting.

Only mid-June maybe is when the golf courses opened. And even then it opened briefly before Bangalore had another lockdown. So it was shut for another eight days. As a person it was great to chill for a while, relax, do nothing, especially because I travel a lot. But if I think as a professional golfer, I keep thinking about how many hours of practice that everyone else has had and maybe I have missed because you can't play golf in your house. Maybe you can do workouts at home but you can't quite get the feel of playing on the course at home.

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You uploaded a video on Instagram with you playing on the roof. So how did that idea come about? And what were you focussing on with that?

The main goal was to just get reps because I think on an average every day I hit at least 100 shots apart from playing on the course, short shots, or the chips. I couldn't do chips or putt but at least I could do a hundred shots or maybe more every day on my terrace. It was not an ideal set up. I was hitting into the curtains, using a foot mat or two to get enough support under the ball. It was just to ensure muscle memory so I wouldn't sit idle for three months. I would hit for two-three hours every day.

How do you prepare for a tournament?

Most tournaments are Thursday to Sunday so you get there either on Sunday night or Monday morning depending on where you came from the previous tournament or if you are going from home. Monday and Tuesday are practice days so usually it would be practice rounds. I play sometimes two rounds or nine (holes) each day depending on if I've played that course before. Wednesday is usually a pro-am (pro-amateur) that's played with sponsors, their guests. It's different each week: sometimes nine holes, sometimes all 18. You don't usually get to practice on the course on that day. And between Monday and Wednesday, at least two gym sessions. Not heavy workouts, but just enough because you can't do much between Thursday and Sunday. So two gym sessions and then practice, by Thursday we start.

Let's talk about the gear. How do you go about selecting your clubs and does it vary from one golfer to another?

It's to do with your swing speed. So depending on how fast you swing the club, they have the weights and lengths for the shaft and the club head. That's like a fitting process usually, at least when I was growing up we didn't have much of those options. Of course, now technology has come a long way. Kids can now get fitted in India also but when I was younger, I just had to play with whatever I got. I didn't get fitted till I was maybe 16, 17, or 18.

Usually, when you get fitted, they check your height, length of your arms, how fast you can swing, and then the company tells you what clubs you should be playing. If you are really technical, you can study and try different brands. You can play different configurations, different shafts, different lengths, different weights in the head. If you want to think about it, there's a lot to think about and learn and tinker with equipment. I'm not really one for that. But yeah, usually getting fitted is the best way to go about selecting all your gear.

In general, what makes a good golfer?

Golf is a more mental sport than most other sports. Obviously, being physically fit and not having any injuries is one thing because you travel 25-30 weeks a year. You do fitness to be able to perform at a high level, but you also do it to make sure you can sustain the amount of travel each year. That's on the physical side. Sports get over in an hour or two hours, usually, and golf takes at least five hours and for four days in a row.

Once you start the tournament, it's really about being in control of your mind because you can't spend four days thinking about your game, you need to be able to switch off and switch on and even during the round, you can't spend five hours thinking about the game. You just think about the game when it's your turn to hit and when you walk, you should be able to turn off your mind and not think about the next shot or the previous shot that you hit. It's more about being patient and staying in the present, which some people are naturally like that. But I guess with golf, you kind of have to learn how to be that way, playing the game.

A lot of the emphasis is placed on the patience that is required. Is there more to the mental aspect?

Being patient is one of the most important things because it takes so long and you play 72 holes, you play four days, you can't really get affected with the results or can't expect results all the time. It takes a long time for you to build a good tournament. You can't just do it in one or two holes. And similarly, if you do well on one or two holes, you can't sit on it because there are 144 girls, and then after two days there's a cut. Everybody has so much golf to play.

It's just about keeping in mind the bigger picture. Patience is definitely one. But I think another thing which is not visible when you watch golf on TV, is that you can't really think a lot. It's funny because you have to think about where you want to hit and what clubs to use, what's the wind, what's the yardage and what shot you can hit to get that yardage. But after all that, when you're actually on the ball executing, you can't think about any of that. Then you should just be in execution mode.

It's not a sport where the ball is thrown at you or hit at you, and you hit it back. It's not reactionary, you decide when you walk to the ball. And when you stand and you set up and then you literally start the swing before you hit the ball. So between all that, the mind is like a funny thing. It can bring thoughts whenever so just being in control of that and not having any thoughts while executing is a big part of it.

At the end of a round, what is your way to unwind or do you stay zoned in for the four days?

After the round usually I end up practicing a little bit based on what I did that day or what I want to work on for the next day. Once I go to the hotel or room, I don't really think about it much. I mean, obviously I might think about the next round and the next day but it's not like I discuss it. I don't really think about it. I don't like to do a lot during the tournament. So on Monday, I might go somewhere different to eat or do something different but during the tournament, I'm not one to go and explore the town or do sightseeing or eat in a faraway place. I just do whatever I need to do to be able to rest and recover and that's it.

How crucial is the diet factor to a golfer and does it vary from when you're in between tournaments and off-season?

I haven't been very specific about that from my childhood. It's just been basic rules: no junk food, no sugar, no soft drinks. Now obviously I'm vegan and have been for three years now. It (diet) is really important on the day that you're playing because six hours (five hours of play and one hour of warm-up) is a lot to cut into any meal. I mean, between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there's barely six hours and you never get a time that suits your meal time. So it's really important to be able to substitute a breakfast or a lunch or a dinner while playing because you're always walking and swinging so you can't really have a sandwich or a proper meal while you're playing.

You have to find what works for you. And at the same time, you got to eat something which doesn't take a lot of energy to digest. I mean it should give you energy but it shouldn't take a lot of your energy, you shouldn't become tired of having eaten a lot while playing. For me, diet is the most important (aspect) of the day of playing to make sure I'm not hungry. Sometimes I've played without eating because just eating fruit, bananas and apples and stuff, it works but over four days, over six hours it shows.

At the end of the round, what you ate six hours ago is what's going to help you now and if you didn't eat anything then you lapse mentally and lose focus. Doing that for 8-10 weeks or 20 weeks in a year, with the travel, that's also hard. For me, it's more important at the venue, just to make sure I'm not lost out on energy.

Moving to playing the game itself. Do you feel your putting affects your mood for your next tee off or do you start each hole afresh?

The idea is to start each hole afresh, obviously. Sometimes you do get upset with what happened especially with the putting because that's where the score is decided. Pretty much what besides the score on every hole and it's right before your next tee shot so yes, it does affect sometimes but it's more important to let it get affected, have your thoughts, emotions and then get over it before the next hole. It is the same in all aspects whether from the previous hole to the next hole or the previous shot to the next shot or even the previous tournament to the next tournament. You can't really carry baggage mentally.

How do you ensure that it doesn't happen?

Statistically, everyone is bound to hit a bad shot at some point. Even if you take 72 shots on average that you hit in a round, you only hit maybe five to 10, if it's a really good day, 10 really good shots. Everything else is not going to be perfect. And you can't change that perfection. It's more to know, I'm trying to do this and sometimes, you have misses and you just manage the bad shots more than trying to hit good shots. You will miss a lot of things; whether it's hitting a fairway or missing a green or making a putt there are bound to be some which you will miss. So more about knowing that, accepting it, and moving on than being upset that it happened. It's bound to happen, especially if you play 30 times a year. You can't be perfect every week, every day.

Firstpost Masterclass Only Indian on LPGA Tour Aditi Ashok unravels physical mental and technical side of golf

Golfer Aditi Ashok after a swing. Image: Instagram/AditiAshok

When you're readying yourself to take a shot, do you pick a target when you're starting off? How do you set a target on a long golf course?

It depends on what exactly is around the fairways - if there's a bunker, water hazard on the left or on the right and depends if the wind also is pushing it towards that trouble or wind isn't helping or if it's not going to push it towards the troubles. You have to take all that into consideration. Sometimes you realise, 'I'm going to reach the water hazard,' so you pick a club which won't reach that yardage. You pick your strategy and based on that, you pick your target and I think the same for hitting the green.

Sometimes you get a yardage, which is not exact tour clubs like most of the gaps 10 yards apart. Sometimes you might get a shot which goes 120 (yards), but the fly will be at 115. Maybe there's water short of the flag or there's something you have to work around. All that makes a difference when you pick a target. Sometimes you don't really play at the flag because it's too close to danger or it's too close to the edge where there might be a bunker or water. Sometimes you might be playing your round so well, you might be few under pars and trying to close it out or you might be in a good position in the field, you might be in the top five or top three or you might be leading and you don't need to try much so that time your targets change.

Similarly, sometimes if on Friday you're at the same score as the cut, which is after two days, you have to make one or two strokes, one or two birdies to play the weekend. That time your targets are different. Maybe on a different day, with a different situation, you wouldn't go at the flag because you need it for the next day. You need your best score if not you wouldn't even be playing the next day.

Targets are really different. So many things affect it: the weather conditions, how you're feeling, how you're playing, the position in the tournament, the difficulty level of the golf course. For me, personally, some courses I have played so long that I know my strengths and weaknesses. I know that most players might actually do well on that hole and might try and be aggressive. But with my statistics, I know that if it's a long haul, if I just make a par four days in a row, then that's enough for me on that hole for four days because I don't want to drop a shot. So that also changes my game plan and my approach to that hole.

Let's rewind a little bit to the first swing itself. What is the checklist?

I think mainly knowing what the hole demands. You need to be on a particular side so that you can look at the flag more directly. So you need to know what the hole demands if you need to be on the right, left, the centre; if you need to have a short club in or have a longer club. So just planning the whole course management, that is one. And secondly, information-wise, you need to know obviously, the distance to any traps, whether it's bunkers or water hazard and knowing the wind direction and the wind strength. If it's into you or if it's helping, right to left, left to right, you need to know all that before hitting.

How important is the follow-through part of the swing? A lot goes into the positioning and the contact. But what about the follow-through?

A lot of it depends on what shot you're trying to hit. So if you curve the ball right to left, it's called a draw. And if you do left to right, it's called a fade. Figuring out what shot you're trying to hit is what helps you make the swing because the follow-through is directly related to what you did while coming on your downswing.

If you want to go out in your follow-through for a draw, you swing in to out. And for a fade, it's the opposite. So most of it is just knowing what shape you're trying to hit and therefore swinging in that shape. And another thing with the follow-through is, obviously, early on when you play golf, you get really eager to see what's happening to the shot. And you kind of grow out of that as you become a better golfer but still in tournament situations where the result really matters you kind of get ahead of yourself and you might be more eager while making the swing. And that's important to keep in check, to not make a hurried swing or rushed swing. Just not be eager to see the result before you actually do what you're supposed to do at the ball.

If someone asked me what's the best part of professional golf, that's what I would say: playing these world-class courses, a new one every week.

How do you feel when you're playing at a new course? Do you see it as a challenge? Do you see it with excitement? And how do you prepare for it.

I'm always really excited. The fact that there's a different course every week makes it most interesting to me. I don't know if I'd be able to play a sport where every week you go to the same court or the same pitch or the same length of field whether it's any other sport. But for golf, you see a new course every week. Actually every day is different because the weather, the conditions, the grass is never the same. Playing a new course every week is always exciting. If someone asked me what's the best part of professional golf, that's what I would say: playing these world-class courses, a new one every week.

In terms of preparation, that is always harder, not just for me, for the entire field. Nobody has been there before. Nobody knows the tendencies, which holes are easy, which are difficult, where to be aggressive, where not to be aggressive. And I think that's what makes the Majors so difficult. Except two Majors, they're all at different courses every year. That's definitely a challenge. It takes more effort. I might have to play two rounds on Monday and Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday, trying to play on the golf course as much as possible. So it's more tiring during the week, but it's also more fun because, in a way, nobody has an advantage.

Like a player who's been on the tour for 15 years or 10 years has seen the course 10 years in a row, but you've seen it only once or twice. None of that is there when you go to a new venue. Everybody sees it the same for the first time.

You've called St Andrews as your favourite course. What do you really like about that course?

I think that's one of the oldest golf courses and it has so much history, so many major championships have happened there. It's such a simple layout, it's a 'U', so you go and you come back in the same spot. So you play the first nine holes going and then 10 to 18 come back directly opposite what you went out. It's not long, it's nothing spectacular but just how tough it can be with the weather conditions and the hazards like the bunkers. And it's a Links course which are only there in the UK, you don't get to experience that in India or in any other part of the world. The Links is a nickname basically because the land between the ocean and the main town is called Links. So it's like the land that links the sea and the land is where they built the golf course. It's not as long compared to other courses but I just think the character of that course and the history of the Championships and tradition there is what's made it one of my favourites.

I had the chance to actually play an Amateur tournament, the only Women's Amateur tournament held at St Andrews, and I won. For me, as an Indian girl to be able to play that tournament and have my name on the trophy where a lot of greats have won in the past, was a great experience. Not many people can say they won a tournament at St Andrews. So I am lucky that way.

Firstpost Masterclass Only Indian on LPGA Tour Aditi Ashok unravels physical mental and technical side of golf

Aditi Ashok with caddy at Spanish Open. Image:Instagram/Aditi Ashok

What is the role of a good caddy for you? And what do you look for in one?

I think the main thing is just getting along with the person. Because you see that person six, seven hours a day, every day, 30 weeks a year. So that's pretty much for a professional golfer, I think, they see caddies more often than they might see their parents or husbands or boyfriends or girlfriends. It's being able to get along with that person and they get along with you.

Job wise, I think them being really specific, being able to get all the information whether it's the wind, the calculations, or giving you advice because they'll see you hit all your shots. I mean, you hit so you do know but they see you play for so long. They can kind of know what your clubs did and how far they went so that they can give you advice for the next time you might have a similar yardage or you're in a similar situation.

Especially in four-day tournaments, where at the end of the day you're busy focusing on making a score, trying to win, trying to finish in the top five or top 10, judgment can get clouded because you're so focussed on the result. Similarly during the year, players are so focussed on getting good results, winning tournaments, it's kind of good to have a caddy who is objective who can just give you advice or help you make a decision just based on what it is and not get carried away.

Players, obviously, everybody thinks they're invincible and sometimes you think you can do anything. But there are times in golf when you can't take on more than you can chew. You just need to be smart and play safe. That's also where a caddy will come in and help you make those decisions.

Of course, carrying your heavy blue bag is not easy to do four days in a row plus to practice. Six days a week carrying a 20-kilo bag on some hilly courses. That's a physically demanding job first and foremost.

Your dad used to be your caddy in quite a lot of tournaments. How do you keep that relationship on the golf course away from the personal relationship?

He's been around me while I've grown up playing golf from a young age. It's sort of happened on its own. Like I wouldn't say something like you're caddying for me at this LPGA or LET event. Now we realise we need to be more professional. I think it's just been like that over the years. Maybe when I was 10 or 12, the way we had conversations then was a lot different from how it is now. And he's also seen me grow up and play golf and become a professional so he kind of knows my game and knows what I can and cannot do. So it's not that difficult now, and I think after so long seeing as a parent watching your kid become a golfer, I think you get used to seeing them as players and less as your kids. That's what I would think.

Do you think the sport is 'regionalised'? American golfers take the limelight when it comes to the men. And South-East Asians for the women?

With the men, they have so many golf courses, so many opportunities, so much access to infrastructure, facilities. And it's common for people to play golf in the UK, US. That has definitely made it so especially when you look at men's golf. 70-80 percent of top-10 players are always Americans.

But I think on the women's side, Americans have been there and have been around for many years, but I think the last 10-15 years is when many Southeast Asians, mainly Koreans have taken up positions on the women's golf tour, especially on the LPGA.

I think Americans and Koreans are the main two nationalities. Korea's Se Ri Pak won the US Open in 1998 and that changed things. It was like a chance for young girls in South Korea to do something if another girl could do it. And they all started playing golf and the infrastructure and systems became so good that every year they produce at least 100 good golfers. Not professionally, but amateurs who can qualify for pro tours and those numbers being such a small country and having lesser land resources compared to America but still having the systems to make it happen is what has made them a powerhouse.

Of the 144 players, now it's common to see every other group have at least one Korean. I think culturally also with Southeast Asia women tend to be the working people in these families, matriarchal societies. So that's another key point where a lot more girls can pick up golf and earn money.

Do you envision you carrying that mantle for India as well, just the way it happened in Korea? One big win and then the number of women, the facilities, everything changes. Do you sort of daydream about that?

I do! It would be a dream come true to make it happen in a country like India, but just seeing the facilities I don't know how much facilities we have and how much more we can make. Cities are getting bigger and golf courses can't really get built in the cities anymore. And it's a tough thing, especially in a country like India, where golf is not the first choice because it's such an expensive sport. I don't think you can look at Korea and try and do the same thing in India.

First, we need to make sure girls get a chance to try out sports. Girls getting a chance to go to schools. It's a lot more issues. At grassroots, there are a lot more issues that have to be sorted in India. I daydream about winning a tournament and trying to make this happen but of course, there's a lot more that needs to be done before we can then say like Korea we have like 50 pros on LPGA. It will take a while to get those systems and get the Federation and everybody to do stuff.

Compared to when I was 17, when I qualified for the European tour, now I can see there's like five Indians on the European tour and all of them trying to qualify for LPGA and every year there are more Indians trying to play the qualifying. Already, as opposed to being the only one there, there's a few more trying which is a good sign. But nurturing talent and getting new girls started (is important). You can't just take the few you have and try and make all of them good. You need numbers. You need thousands to try and then hundreds to take it seriously. And then 10 of those hundred might become world-class. So numbers are what we need in India.

If you look back from your rather young career, there have been a couple of great wins and moments, but what is something that you really cherish?

I think it would be winning the Indian Open. I played that tournament when I was 13 years old and that has been the only exposure for Indian girls to see European tour players. All the time I played it from 13 till 18, I had never seen any Indian winner. Every year you see all these foreign players come to your country and play and you never feel like Indian girls can actually win because they've never won before.

And you kind of wonder if it's even possible. It's not like girls in America or in Korea who have footsteps to follow from their country. It had happened in India for 10 years and to be the first Indian winner, at least if not for me, I know that any other 13-year-old coming up as an amateur and teeing off they will see another Indians name on the trophy and they think okay, it's possible for them to win. I'm saying this now but when I was 18, when I won, I didn't really think any of this. I was just a rookie on a European tour and I won a tournament and I was happy. But now I think that the effect it could have is a lot because you see that Indians are not just a number in the field or not just a participant, but they can win and then I won two more tournaments on the European tour. So that's probably one of the important moments and also getting to play at the Olympics, representing India was pretty good, too, because golf was never part of the Olympics and having that opportunity being the only Indian girl to do it. And being the youngest golf Olympian was also a
huge milestone.

If you had to send a message to a young girl coming up, playing golf or wishing to play golf, what would you tell them?

I would say work hard and have fun. Without having fun, you wouldn't want to go to the golf course every day. If it's not fun and therefore you won't be productive. Enjoy the game first and then work hard and always try and push yourself. In India there has never been enough competition, has never seen many golfers so you always have to push yourself. When I was 12, I played with U-18 girls on my own. I didn't want to play in U-13, I wanted to push myself. Similarly, when I was 13, I played in professional tournaments in India, I played in the European tour events when I was 17. I qualified for the LPGA event. I made efforts to play like the British amateurs, British Junior etc. Push yourself and elevate your level of competition. Never be happy with what you have and always try and push yourself to the bigger stages, to get better.

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