Spending a lot of time in the bunker isn’t usually conducive to kicking off your golf career, but for sisters Jahanvi and Hitaashee Bakshi, it was the perfect start.
“I played on sand for two years when I started going golf, but after that I was only six,” says 18-year-old Hitachi.
Indian professionals were introduced to the game of golf by their parents, in a country where prior to 2005 there was no way to make money from the game.
“Initially, I was fascinated by the birds and squirrels on the course,” says 19-year-old Jhanvi, the four-time winner of the local women’s professional golf tour in India. “Then, once you win the championship, there is no going back. My ultimate ambition is to get a place in the LPGA Hall of Fame.”
Hitaashee, who has also won four domestic tours, and Jahanvi will be among the 30 Indian players competing in this week’s Indian Women’s Open on the LET Ladies European Tour (LET) in Delhi – an important event for developing local talent, one that has been sorely missed from the schedule after Cancellation due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
The standout performer from a domestic perspective was Aditi Ashok’s win in 2016 – she was 18 at the time, beating two-time American Grand Champion Brittany Linquime for the single-shot win.
Now playing full time on the US-based LPGA Tour, Aditi is a double Olympian, narrowly losing a bronze medal at last year’s Tokyo Games.
“Seeing that success within your peers inspires you to move forward,” says Alexandra Armas, CEO of the Ladies European Tour, who has seen first-hand the importance of taking golf globally.
“India has always been an interesting market for us. When we first went there, we only had one Indian member, now we have 12 LET members, playing with great success. People are very excited about the game there.”
Aditi’s win in 2016 is one episode of the butterfly effect that has led to the growth of the women’s game. In 2007, when she was nine years old, she visited the tournament when it was held in Bangalore, her hometown, and it was then that she decided that this would be her mission in life.
Tvesa Malik, who has seven spots in the top 10 in LET, says one golfer in particular who came to India in 2010 paved the way for her to commit to a life in golf.
“I volunteered for the Women’s Indian Open a few years after I started playing, that was the year Laura Davies won. It was great to be there. I heard about it being so legendary (the English lady won four majors and 87 world championships), she went She won that week and became a role model for me.”
The year Aditi won, Diksha Dagar, a 15-year-old amateur, saw success – Diksha was inspired by domestic success, and later won a championship in South Africa on her fourth professional debut.
Diksha remembers this success in 2019: “My phone was very broken when I won, and everyone was congratulating me.”
She continued to compete in the Tokyo Olympics as well, after some help from Swede Henrik Stenson.
“He helped me arrange my work, and when I qualified for the Olympics, I started crying and reminiscing about my suffering,” Diksha said. “This was my dream, and I want to be a big star, like PV Sindhu (the only Indian woman to win two Olympic medals) and Neeraj Chopra (the Olympic javelin champion from Tokyo).”
The performances of Aditi, Diksha and Tvesa in turn inspired the new generation of local pros, such as the Bakshi sisters and Pranavi Urs, who this year won the Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI) award with five tournament victories.
“My long-term goal is to become world number one,” says Hitachi Bakshi with a smile, “and I would like the Bakshi sisters to become something like Sisters Korda (American players Nelly and Jessica). It’s amazing to think that some people think like that about us.”
Jahanvi advocates for the positives of the domestic tour that have seen them grow as players and as people. “It’s the backbone of Indian golf, and it made us comfortable in the professional environment,” she said.
“If you ever said to me, ‘Go and play the LET’, I would shiver, but I’m glad I was able to learn from the great guys on our tour.”
These incredible players will be aiming for a life-changing week – winning the Women’s Indian Open comes with the full perks of playing on the 2023 LET, a gateway to a world of opportunity.
The opportunities now for the female Indian professional originated from Champika Sayal, now the Secretary General of WGAI, who attended the Women’s World Golf Conference in 2004. Her persistence, with the help of India’s first female LPGA Tour professional, Simi Mehra, has finally seen the ability of female golfers to make a profit. Money in India, but the beginnings were not easy.
Champika recalls, “My budget was small and no marketing staff, but I just wanted to do it. I saw golf in India as old and traditional, and I wanted to change the way of thinking. The first seven years were very humiliating but we slowly made ourselves known.”
Simi Mehra is part of the Butterfly Effect, too – her breakthrough to the LPGA Tour in the mid-1990s, with little financial support or media coverage, was groundbreaking.
“I didn’t have a teacher, my mother just gave me a book by Ben Hogan. In the US I would sleep in my car at truck stops to save money on entrance fees,” Mehra says. “My mother said she wanted me to fail, so I should go back and get married. She wanted it to be hard for me.”
These are stories from a different era, but at their core, and like today’s Indian players, there is a deep determination to succeed, despite the odds often against them. As Aditi looks back on her impressive win in 2016, she sums it up – “I played in the India Open growing up, and we didn’t see a win for an Indian girl. It meant a lot to me to put my name on a trophy. Every win means a lot but it does mean a lot to me to put my name on a trophy. More “.
Watch The Rise of Women’s Golf in India heresubmitted by V Krishnaswamy, or on BBC iPlayer.