RIO DE JANEIRO – It was a family breakfast at the Royal Orchid, a quiet eatery wedged between Intermediate Ring Road and Karnatada Golf Association in eastern Bangalore, when then 5-year-old Aditi Ashok fell for golf.
Ashok Gudlamani, Aditi’s father, was enjoying a family meal when his daughter gazed across the lawn to the Karnatada driving range.
“We looked at the driving range where people were hitting balls and we got intrigued and went in,” Gudlamani said. “She settled into the putting green.”
Aditi hasn’t since left the green.
Less than eight months later she played her first round of golf at Bangalore Golf Club – an older layout of 6,200 yards – because, Gudlamani sheepishly admits, Karnatada is a private club and memberships are hard to come by.
“After her first round she had two rosy cheeks, she was so happy. She wanted to go right back out again,” Gudlamani said.
There was a similar smile on Thursday at the Olympic Golf Club where Aditi carded her second-consecutive 68 for a spot near the top of the leaderboard through two rounds of the women’s competition.
The novelty of an 18-year-old in contention for a medal at this week’s Games was not entirely unpredictable – world No. 1 Lydia Ko is 19, after all – but Aditi’s journey from a family meal at Royal Orchid to Rio is hard to exaggerate, even by Olympic standards.
Gudlamani explains that his daughter immediately took to golf, taking the unique approach of learning how to play from the green to the tee with a focus on her short game.
When she was 10 years old, Aditi won a national handicap tournament in India against women who were four-times her age. She was the nation’s junior champion for three consecutive years (2012-14) and a two-time India Amateur winner.
She turned pro in January, promptly winning the Ladies European Tour’s Q-School and last month earned a trip to the Women’s British Open by winning a qualifying tournament.
All along, through Q-School and qualifying for her first major and her start at Woburn last month, she proceeded with the singular purpose of preparing for this week’s Rio Games.
Let the debate continue as to the importance of golf returning to the Games for the first time in over a century (116 years for the women); all one needs to understand the potential impact that golf’s Olympic fortnight could have on growing the game was etched into Thursday’s leaderboard.
“I think it would be big in India, and also being a golfer, a woman golfer, it will definitely boost the popularity of the sport. That's what I'm hoping to do,” said Aditi, who was tied for the lead before a closing bogey dropped her into a tie for fourth place.
A medal on Saturday for Aditi, any medal will do, would resonate back home in Bangalore and beyond. Consider that there are 206 golf courses in India, but only one that would be considered “public” by western standards.
According to the Indian Golf Union, the country of 1.25 billion has between125,000 and 150,000 golfers, but even that number is exaggerated and based on whether someone played a single round of golf in a year. A more realistic estimate is between 70,000 and 80,000 Indians play golf regularly, according to Dilip Thomas, an Indian Golf Union council member.
When golf’s organizers made their pitch to the International Olympic Committee, in 2009, to bring the game back to the Olympics, just five years after Aditi played her first round, it was always motivated by the notion that the Games resonate well beyond traditional sports fans.
That’s a potential growth pool of 1.25 billion if a player, like Aditi, was somehow able to turn the Olympic spotlight on a game that largely exists in the sporting shadows in India.
“I have a theory that Indians excel at sports of mind and touch, and golf is a game of mind and touch,” Thomas said. “We are at a stage that is about 15 to 20 years behind other countries in terms of golf. The top 10 sports in India are cricket, cricket, cricket and cricket ...”
Putting the expectations of an entire sport, if not an entire nation, on any athlete is unfair, particularly when that player is just a few months removed from her high school graduation. But as impressive as Aditi has been for two days on the golf course it might be her ability to effortlessly carry that burden that is really awe-inspiring.
With an ease that belies her age, Aditi has embraced her role as the game’s ultimate ambassador and the potential impact her play this week could have back home.
“Hopefully, she will make the sport popular and golf becomes a big sport in India,” Gudlamani said. “We are getting a lot of messages from India. If she can get to the podium that would be great.”
Not that Gudlamani and Aditi are spending much time this week plotting a bigger picture plan for golf in India. In fact, Gudlamani admits that he’s not saying much at all.
“There’s only one rule when I’m caddying: shut up,” he laughed.
Aditi’s journey in golf will continue after this week, with a flight waiting on Saturday after she finishes her final round to wing her to the first stage of LPGA Tour Q-School that begins next week in California.
But whatever the rest of her career holds, it may not ever compare to what she’s poised to accomplish in Rio.