India's Ashok riding the wave of stardom

By Randall MellNovember 29, 2016, 12:54 am

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Aditi Ashok’s parents didn’t drag her to a golf course when she was a little girl.

She practically dragged them.

The odds were astronomically stacked against her finding her way into golf while growing up in Bangalore, India, and yet somehow she did so much more than that. She found her way to the Olympics this summer, then to a pair of Ladies European Tour victories as a tour rookie this fall and now to the final stage of LPGA Q-School this week.

Ashok, 18, isn’t the proverbial one-in-a-million longshot making it to Rio de Janeiro this summer and now to Daytona Beach this fall.

She’s one in 1.2 billion.

That’s the population of India.

Bangalore is a city of 8.4 million, known as the “Silicon Valley of India,” the information technology capital of that country. Golf is a needle in a mountainous haystack there. When Ashok was 5, there were just three golf courses in the entire city, and yet destiny led her to one.

Actually, Ashok’s start began at a driving range.

“We used to go for breakfast on weekends at a restaurant overlooking the driving range at the Karnataka Golf Association,” Ashok said Monday after a practice round at LPGA International. “I remember asking my dad, `What is that? What are they doing?’ And my dad said, `Do you want to give it a try?’”

Ashok Gudlamani and his wife, Mash, never played golf before escorting their daughter into the pro shop at the KGA range. Aditi’s father worked in real estate, his mother worked in human resources department and later as a radio disc jockey.

“We started golf together,” Aditi said. “I remember they handed me a putter, because it was the easiest way to get started. I didn’t want to leave the putting green. I was there a couple hours, and when we left I wanted to come back because I wanted to know how the rest of the game worked.”

Today, there are still only six golf courses in all of Bangalore, but everyone there knows Aditi’s name. She’s a growing sports personality whose reputation is exploding outside the tiny golf niche in India.

When Aditi grabbed a share of the second-round lead in the Olympic women’s golf competition in Rio, the country’s larger sports base swelled with pride. She ended up tying for 41st in Rio, but that’s not what her homeland remembers most about her appearance in the first Olympic women’s golf competition in 116 years. They remember her sharing the lead with Ariya Jutanugarn halfway through the competition.

“A lot of people learned about this game called golf watching the Olympics,” Aditi’s father said over lunch in the LPGA International clubhouse. “She made golf popular in India in a little way.”

Actually, in a big way.

Gudlamani was on Aditi’s bag as caddie in Rio de Janeiro. He felt what his fellow countrymen must have been feeling with Aditi on the leaderboard.

“I was just carrying the bag,” he said. “She was doing all the hard work.

“I think as kids, we all dreamed in some way of making it to the Olympics, but then at some point we realize we aren’t going to get there. But my daughter took me there, and I felt so privileged to be there, with her.” 

Aditi’s mother was back in Bangalore watching on TV. She felt their world changing with Aditi’s rise on the Olympic leaderboard. She felt a giant wave of new interest crashing into their world.

“There was a flurry of media interest,” Mash said. “All the media couldn’t wait for her to come home. They wanted to see how she lived. It was very, very tough to keep them away.”

Aditi went straight from the Olympics to the first stage of LPGA Q-School in the United States, where she safely advanced. Her story kept building when she returned to the LET. She rode a wave of confidence to a T-9 finish in Germany, a T-6 finish in Spain, a T-10 finish in France and a T-8 finish in China.

Her hot run set up a fairy-tale-like first LET victory.

Aditi won the Hero Women’s Indian Open two weeks ago. The fact that her first LET victory came in her homeland made it all the more spectacular. She won with a birdie at the last to hold off LPGA pros Brittany Lincicome and Belen Mozo.

“The crowd went crazy,” Aditi said. “Definitely, the confidence gained in the Olympics carried over.”

Aditi made the front page of the Times of India, the nation’s largest newspaper. It wasn’t a full story on the front, but a reference to her win, teasing readers to see the entire story in the sports section. She also made national TV highlights. It was a huge deal for Indian golf to get that kind of attention.

“Cricket is our sport,” Aditi said. “We are a cricket-crazy country. After that, the Olympics are most important.

“A lot of people who didn’t know anything about golf watched the Olympics. Ever since, I get little girls running up to me saying, `She played in the Olympics. I want to be just like her.’ It’s inspiring. It was the whole idea behind getting golf in the Olympics.

“In India, they write about me now even in random LET events. I’m `The girl who was leading in the Olympics.’ I wish I would have finished better in the Olympics, but it was a great experience.”

Aditi doubled down after winning in India. She won her very next start at the Qatar Ladies Open last week. With back-to-back victories, she rides a wave of momentum to LPGA International this week.

“It was my goal to win as a rookie on the LET,” Aditi said. “I managed to get through. It’s been a really good season, and hopefully I can do well again this week. I’m playing well, and I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.”

If Aditi does, her fairy-tale year just might extend to a rookie year in the LPGA ranks next season.

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.

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Spieth vs. Reed random? Hmm, wonders Spieth

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 6:42 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Monday’s blind draw to determine the 16 pods for this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play didn’t exactly feel “blind” for Jordan Spieth, whose group includes Patrick Reed.

Spieth and Reed have become a staple of U.S. teams in recent years, with a 7-2-2 record in the Ryder and Presidents Cup combined. So when the ping-pong ball revealed Reed’s number on Monday night Spieth wasn’t surprised.

“It seems to me there's a bit more to this drawing than randomness,” laughed Spieth, whose pod also includes Haotong Li and Charl Schwartzel. “It's not just me and him. It's actually a lot of groups, to have Luke List and Justin [Thomas] in the same group seems too good to be true. It might be some sort of rigging that's going on, I'm not sure.”

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Spieth will play Reed on Friday in the round-robin format and knows exactly what to expect from the fiery American.

“I've seen it firsthand when he's been at his best. And we have history together in a couple of different playoffs, which is a match-play scenario,” Spieth said. “I've got to take care of work tomorrow and the next day for that day to even matter. But even if it doesn't matter, trust me, it will matter to both of us.”