Indian women’s professional golf may be the game’s best-kept secret. Not many know that the Hero Women’s Pro Golf Tour, which kicked off the 2021 calendar year on 12 January, now consists of 15 to 18 events annually with fields of approximately 40 players. Purses range from $10,000 to $15,000. That’s a healthy return for a circuit that started with just five low-budget tournaments and a handful of players.
Perhaps more should be known about women’s golf in India, not least because a woman plied her trade on the American tours before Arjun Atwal, Jeev Milkha Singh and Anirban Lahiri, now in his seventh PGA Tour season.
As a young girl, Smriti (Simi) Mehra, now 48, idolised Nancy Lopez. Simi went to the US in the early 1990s to follow in Lopez’s footsteps. Her mother gave her some money, wished her luck, but told her to come back to get married and settle down.
“When I was young, there were so few women playing golf,” Mehra recalls. “I was always playing with the boys. Arjun (Atwal), also from the same club, Royal Calcutta Golf Club, was one of them.”
The fiery young woman won on the Futures Tour in 1996, graduated to the LPGA Tour in 1997 and played seven seasons. She competed in the majors and befriended many top players. After 2004, she started thinking about an Indian women’s pro golf tour.
Champika Nanda Sayal, secretary general of the Women’s Golf Association of India, shared Mehra’s dreams.
“Players of my generation missed out on professional careers in golf,” Sayal says. “During my tenure (as chairperson of National Ladies Amateur Golf), it was heartbreaking to see India’s young talent not being able to make a career post playing for national pride (as amateurs).”
Pro golf took its first steps in India in October 2005. Mehra not only encouraged LPGA stars to come to India, but found a sponsor for an $18,000 skins game at DLF Golf Country Club.
Sayal travelled to New York in 2004 for the first World Congress for Women’s Golf hosted by the LPGA. She also attended a forum in China.
“I sensed as early as 2004 that if an Indian female player was ever to play Olympic golf, they needed to start (playing) professional golf,” she said.
While Mehra originally flew the flag for Indian women’s golf, Aditi Ashok now carries the country’s expectations on her shoulders. In 2016, she stunned a star-studded field at age 18 to win the Hero Women’s Indian Open, the first Indian winner on the Ladies European Tour. She now plays on the LPGA.
“Me and my parents walked into a golf club when I was 5½ years old, and that’s when my golf journey began,” Ashok said. “It started as a fun family thing but I kept coming back to learn. I’m still learning.
“I didn’t really have an idol growing up as I used to watch a lot of men’s golf; the LPGA wasn’t televised much in India. The first time I ever saw women’s professional golf was in Eagleton during the Emaar MGF Ladies Masters (on the LET in 2007). I remember walking around as a 9-year-old thinking this was what I wanted to do – be a professional golfer.”
Sayal and Mehra realised their dream of an Indian woman in the Olympics when Ashok played in the 2016 Games in Brazil. Her performance during the first two days attracted global attention. It also encouraged a lot of young girls to try golf. They now fill driving ranges and academies all across India.
Gurgaon-based Tvesa Malik played five months in Europe during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. She says she always knew golf was her career.
“I think from the time I started doing well as a junior golfer I was very clear about what I wanted to do,” Malik says. “When I had my first win in a pro event, while being an amateur, I realised this was what I wanted to do professionally.”
Before Ashok and Malik, Sharmila Nicollet played on the LET. She is yet to fulfil her promise, partly because of injuries.
Two-time LPGA winner Heather Daly-Donofrio, 2003 US Women’s Open champion Hilary Lunke and Paraguayan Celeste Troche, winner of the 2007 Women’s World Cup of Golf, joined Mehra in the event.
“Heather and Hilary were so generous with their time and even gave away equipment to promote juniors,” Mehra recalls. “We finally got a tour in 2006. Two amazing gentlemen, who did a lot for women’s golf but are no longer around, were Mr. Satish Tandon and Mr. VS Singh.”
There were just eight women pros and five events when the Indian Women’s Pro Tour started in 2006-07. Simi won most of the tournaments. “Some people would say ‘Simi started the tour so she could win.’ The truth is I used to travel between the US and India between pro events, and my flight tickets cost more than my winnings.”
The women found a formidable ally in Hero MotoCorp, a big player in the world game. Since 2010, Hero has sponsored the tour and the $500,000 Women’s Indian Open.
WGAI president Kavita Singh, whose family owns DLF Golf and Country Club, said, “After 10 years and more of work, it is heartening to see so many Indian girls on the Ladies European Tour, one (Ashok) on the LPGA, and some others coming up fast.
“Indian women’s golf has come a long way.”
Top: Aditi Ashok