Indian trailblazer Smriti Mehra lauded Aditi Ashok's "incredible" effort at the Tokyo Games, saying her "incomparable" achievement will bring a big shift in women's golf in the country.
Ashok on Saturday missed a medal narrowly as she signed off 4th in the Olympic Games' golf competition after carding a three-under 68 in the weather-hit final round in Tokyo. "Her achievement is incomparable because she has achieved something nobody else has.
She got one billion Indians to wake up at 5 am to watch ladies golf!," the 49-year-old told PTI in an interaction. "It's never happened. That achievement itself is quite incredible. People wouldn't even imagine that 20 years ago," she gushed, while on a trek at Himachal Pradesh's Hamta.
It's been a long wait for Smriti 'Simi' Mehra, who was the first woman to put Indian golfers on the world map, more than two decades back. Mehra was laughed off and criticized by many when at the age of 23 she had decided to make the cut for the coveted LPGA Tour way back in 1995.
"Chele o jayeni, meye jache dekho (There's no Indian in PGA, and look a woman is eyeing an LPGA Tour card)," the Kolkata-born Simi once again recalled the criticism, on a day Ashok created history at the Tokyo Olympics. The 23-year-old Bengalurean ended two strokes off the pace with a total of 15-under 269, which was just one stroke below the medal bracket.
USA's world number one Nelly Korda took the gold with 17-under 267. Mehra said she is very proud of Ashok's achievement. "I knew this would happen someday. It's been a long wait. I always knew this would happen someday. There has come a big change in women's golf, a big shift."
Mehra had become the first Indian player on the LPGA Tour in 1996, eight years before Arjun Atwal became the first male Indian to earn a PGA Tour card in 2004. "Nobody thought I would make the LPGA Tour when I went for it in 1995 either. People laughed at me in fact, have you gone mad they would say. I was the first Indian, male or female," she said.
"I've received more phone calls in the last 24 hours than I did when I finished first in the British Open." Mehra, the co-founder of WGAI in 2004, was once trumped by a 12-year-old amateur Aditi in the playoff during an event in Bengaluru. It was then that Mehra had told her to pursue the sport at a "serious level".
"She got a spot as an amateur and was leading when I birdied the last 3 holes to tie the lead for a playoff. She beat me and I told her mom (Mash) to make sure she's serious about the game. I always knew she had a very, very bright future ahead," she said.
Asked about missing out on a bronze despite being on second till round three, she said: "She's so young and she had COVID that really drained her. "With all of that, if you look at the entire picture, the fact that she was in medal contention till the last minute, that itself was phenomenal."
Swedish great Annika Sorenstam once had told her during a 1998 Tour that golf is a game that you don't play against each other, but you play against the golf course. "Whoever plays best wins, that's what is so great about the game. You are playing with these girls, not against them.
"So nothing went wrong (for Aditi). She played her best and left everything out there. One thing I can say is that nobody is more disappointed than Aditi herself. Personally, I'm very, very proud of her. She left it all out."
She further urged the government to promote the sport at the grassroots level. "It's high time that the government pays attention to women's golf now. Start taking the sport to remote places, it does not take much," Mehra said.
"The only way to turn around is by bringing more youngsters. Not necessarily you have to build golf courses but academies and training centres. We have many good places like Siri Fort in New Delhi," she signed off.