India's Ashok eager to prove Olympics were no fluke


India’s Aditi Ashok is in California this week trying to turn her Olympic momentum into an LPGA tour card.

Hardly waiting to catch her breath after stirring hearts with her dreamy start in Rio last week, Ashok flew to Rancho Mirage the day after the Olympics ended to begin her next big adventure. She will tee it up Thursday at Mission Hills in the first stage of LPGA Q-School.

“It’s my goal to play on the LPGA tour,” Ashok told in a telephone interview. “To be able to play here this week, where the ANA Inspiration is played, it’s so much fun. I played the Dinah Shore Course. I want to play it again next year, when the major is here, and so I’m really working hard to do that.

“But I’m going to try not to think about that during a round, but to think about one shot at a time. That should get me through.”

The last week has been a whirlwind for Ashok, the upstart 18-year-old from Bangalore, India, who got the world’s attention grabbing a share of the second-round lead in the Olympics. She said she was surprised to see Bollywood actors from India and big-name cricket personalities tweeting about her during the Games. She was inspired hearing how proud her fellow countrymen were of her making worldwide news.

“It was a huge experience for me,” Ashok said. “A lot of people from India were excited, and a lot were following me and supporting me. I think that was the whole idea of golf in the Olympics, to get more people interested in golf.

“I haven’t been home yet, but the Indian Golf Union told me juniors have already been inspired to take up golf. I hope that’s true.

“I’m sure if I had played better on the weekend, I would have made my country even more proud than they are now, but I’m sure I’ll have more chances.”

Ashok ended up tying for 41st, but that’s not what India will remember about her appearance in the first Olympic women’s golf competition in 116 years. They’ll remember Ashok grabbing a share of the second-round lead with Ariya Jutanugarn. They’ll remember the enormous pride she generated in a nation where golf struggles for attention.

“That was fun,” Ashok said. “I’ve never led a tournament with such big names in it.”

Ashok was the youngest player in the Olympic women’s field. At 17 last fall, she became the youngest player to win the Ladies European Tour Q-School. Because she didn’t finish high school until April, she made a late start as an LET rookie season this year. If all goes as she hopes, Ashok will remain a rookie next year, but this time with the LPGA.

“I’m going to be playing in some big events, and the Olympic experience gives me confidence I’m ready for them,” Ashok said.

The Olympic experience came with so many fringe benefits. Ashok got to talk to her idol, Annika Sorenstam, again. Ashok first met the Hall of Famer at Sorenstam’s junior event. Ashok also received a special request from Gary Player after a round. She was escorted to the International Golf Federation lounge to meet him.

“It was amazing,” Ashok said. “He shared some of his views of my game and how he thinks I can get better. He said I should work on becoming more solid from 100 yards and in. I think I’m good in that area, but the things he told me made sense. He talked about how it’s the one area that’s really going to help my scoring, on good days and bad days.”

Ashok said another special moment came with her father, Gudlamani, as her caddie. She said he turned to her during a delay in the first round and said something that warmed her heart.

“My father thanked me for making him a part of it all as my caddie,” Ashok said. “I said, `What are you talking about?’ He said being part of the Olympics meant so much to him. He was trying to tell me what a big deal sharing the experience with me was to him. I felt lucky to have him with me, and to see how happy he was all week.”

Gudlamani will caddie for his daughter again this week. There’s a field of 360 players at first stage Q-School. Ashok must finish among the top 60 and ties after four rounds to advance to second stage. The final stage will be at LPGA International in Daytona Beach in December.

Ashok knows her whirlwind journey won’t end when the first stage of Q-School ends. She has been told there is a long list of interview requests for her from the Indian media when she gets home. Ashok doesn’t have an agent. Her mother, Mash, manages her business affairs, but Aditi has been told that some sponsorship opportunities have already surfaced.

“Nothing’s finalized yet,” she said.

Still, the last week hasn’t all been dreamy. When Ashok arrived in California from Brazil, her golf clubs didn’t make it with her. She had to play Monday’s practice rounds with borrowed clubs. She was relieved when her clubs arrived Tuesday and she was able to practice with them.

“I think I proved in the Olympics I was good enough to compete,” Ashok said. “It’s something I look forward to doing more often.”