Saturday, January 10, 2009

King of Clubs
Four major titles, a career-high of 34 in the world rankings, there is no stopping ace golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, writes Donald Banerjee

Jeev Milkha Singh with the trophy after winning the Singapore Open, 2008
Jeev Milkha Singh with the trophy after winning the Singapore Open, 2008 Photo: Reuters

Jeev Milkha Singh has been reborn — as a star. This gentleman golfer from Chandigarh has emerged as the country’s first golf icon. But with a difference. He doesn’t have the trappings or the tantrums that go with the territory.

Last year was a dream run for Jeev. In his most successful season to date, the ace golfer won four titles (one each on the European (Austrian Open) and Asian Tour (Singapore Open) and two on the Japanese Tour to end the year at a career-high of 34 in the world rankings.

The golf icon also clinched the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit for the second time in three years, becoming the first man to win more than $1 million in one season. He was also voted the Players’ Player of the Year in Asia.

Chandigarh Golf Club and CGA Golf Range recently held special functions to honour Jeev. The presence of a large number of fans and the cheers from the crowded lawns were a clear indication that Jeev has arrived.

But the golfer remains unfazed by all this adulation. He takes success in his stride or shall we say in his swing.

Jeev laughs it off saying: "I am yet to achieve stardom. The star in family is my dad Milkha Singh. I will have to win a Major title to come anywhere near him."

"Since I am not a star, so how can I throw tantrums," says the modest golfer during a chat at his Sector 8 residence in Chandigarh.

He looks cool, calm and relaxed after a massage session by Pedro Seville, European Tour physiotherapist from the Philippines, who is in Chandigarh, to get him back into shape for the immediate European Tour events to be held in Dubai and Qatar from January 15. His right ankle continues to give him trouble. "It needs to be strengthened," says the physiotherapist. Jeev has to take breaks after every strenuous golf session.

"Last year I triumphed after taking pain-killers and ignoring my injuries. But this year I will be concentrating on the US PGA and the European Tours. The Asian Tour takes a back seat. That means I get a lot of rest in between Major tournaments."

Jeev with his father Milkha Singh, mother Nirmal and wife Kudrat
Jeev with his father Milkha Singh, mother Nirmal and wife Kudrat Photo: Manoj Mahajan

Jeev, who also clinched the ninth slot in the US PGA Tour, is determined to grab one of the four Majors this year. "I think the right time to win a Major has come," he says.

"2008 was a good year. But my best is yet to come. I think I am in the right frame of mind to win a Major title this year," Jeev adds.

Is he prepared to take on the world champions?

"Yes", comes the emphatic reply. "If I could conquer three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els in the Barclays Singapore Open, I can do it again for a Major title on the US or the European soil," says the confident player.

"Golf is a mental game. I was aggressive in 2007 and paid the price. My positive game in 2008 got me the second Asian crown and 34th place in world ranking," he adds with a smile.

" I am 38 and if I keep myself fit I can go on till the age of 50. But before I retire I will have a Major title under my belt," says the golf icon.

His driving and putting are in perfect order. He is trying to get accuracy in distance control, in which he considers Tiger Woods as the best. Once that is achieved "a Major title is within reach", says the golfer.

About the much-hyped talk on earnings from the Asian Tour (about $ 1.5 million) and the Japan and European Tour, besides the US PGA tour, which comes to a total of about $ 3 million, Jeev says more than half of the prize money goes into the fees for green, caddies, air fare and board and lodging in five-star resorts, running the courses.

"I am well-settled now. I can handle these finances, but imagine the plight of upcoming golfers who fail to make the cut and yet have to foot the expenses," says Jeev.

He is all praise for the Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI), which has brought a lot of prize money tournaments to the country. Gautam Thapar of the Thapar group, which controls the PGTI, is the main sponsor for Gaganjeet Bhullar of Kapurthala, Shiv Kapur and S.S.P Chowrasia. Others who came forward to help the budding pros were Dilip Thomas of the Indian Golf Union, Pawan Munjal of Hero Honda and Arvind Khanna, who floated the Tiger Sports.

"Big business houses should come forward to sponsor budding golf professionals during the initial years when they have to fend for themselves after failing to make the cut, adds the ace golfer.

He feels if 10 business houses come forward to sponsor at least three golfers each, India will be able to produce an Asian champion every other year.

He also feels that golfers can’t attain the superstardom of cricketers because they are less seen in advertisements and on TV. "But a beginning has been made, I have started getting advertisement campaigns," says the golf icon.

According to Jeev, "Golf has a bright future. In fact, it is the game India should look forward to. It is growing in the country in a big way. It is undoubtedly the future sport of India. The time has come to open public driving ranges in all cities so that the sport does not remain restricted to a select few."

The golfer feels that future champions will come from small towns and cities. "The accessibility to the greens is a major factor to remove the pressure that is the bane of the big city golfers, who have to travel long distances through traffic jams to reach the greens."

"People have started taking interest in this sport and now many parents want their kids to adopt golf as a professional sport," he adds.

Jeev is happy that a lot more golf clubs are coming up in the vicinity of Chandigarh. He has a word of praise for D. Dhesi who, he says, is instrumental in bringing about a golf course in Panchkula. "The greens are good and the golf course is of international standards," says the golf pro.

Talking about the Japan Tour, where his victory in the Nippon Series JT Cup came with a great personal loss (his wife Kudrat had delivered a stillborn child prior to the tournament), Jeev says he took part in the tournament only due to his wife’s insistence.

"I was not focussed," says the golfer. "My mind was with Kudrat, who was recuperating in a Tokyo hospital. I won the tournament and dedicated the triumph to my wife. She was the winner," he adds sombrely.

"Though Kudrat is not a golfer, says Jeev, "but she walks the greens along with me. That gives me the confidence in all major tournaments,"

The regimentation and determination in Jeev are very much in his genes, passed down from his Olympian father, ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh. His father had won 76 of the 80 international races he took part in.

Apart from the grit, Jeev and his father also share a unique honour. Both have been awarded the Padma Shri. Milkha Singh got it after the Commonwealth Games in 1958, while Jeev was honoured with it in January 2007.

If India is a name to reckon with in international golf, it is due to Jeev’s hard work. But the country may have remained deprived of the talent of this iconic player had he fallen in with his parents wishes.

Both Milkha Singh and Nirmal Milkha Singh were against their son taking to sports. They wanted him to become an engineer or a doctor. Jeev initially took to cricket during his school days at Bishop Cotton (Shimla) and St John’s (Chandigarh). But he also played golf whenever he was in Chandigarh. It seemed as if the sport came naturally to him.

Despite his parents’ resistance, Jeev continued to play and blossomed into a good golfer. At the age of 13, he won the Aerospace Junior title and then went to England on a three-month coaching assignment. There was no looking back after that.

On his way to the top, Jeev has always abided by his father’s advice: "Only hard work, discipline and will power will take you to the peak in any sport."

This year Jeev’s focus will be on the US PGA. He will also have a go at the four Majors starting with the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, USA, in April, the US Open in June, the British Open in July and the PGA Tour in August.

The golfer will also take part in the European Tour, play three events on the Japan Tour and only a restricted few events on the Asian Tour.