The unlikeliest of contenders after 36 holes

Aditi Ashok, 18, is representing a country of 1.25 billion quite well in Rio

India's Aditi Ashok, 18, is ranked 462nd in the world. (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: As the year draws to a close, we are bringing you some of 2016’s most unique stories to enjoy on your holiday break. Enjoy these looks at some of the unique personalities who play the game we love.

RIO DE JANEIRO – She’s 18 years old, the youngest player in the field. She’s ranked 462nd in the world. There’s duct tape on the side of her bag. She became interested in golf because her family happened to eat breakfast one morning near a range.

Oh, and her native country of 1.25 billion people has little interest in the sport. Her dad estimates that her opening tee shot “and maybe a couple holes” have been shown on TV back home.

Maybe they’ll show a few more highlights in India of Aditi Ashok now that she’s in medal contention halfway through the Olympic women’s tournament.

Through 36 holes, she’s 6 under, having shot a pair of 68s. That puts her into a tie for eighth, four shots off the lead held by Korea’s Inbee Park.

Park, by the way, already has qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Aditi has yet to qualify for the LPGA Tour. In four days, she’ll be in Rancho Mirage, California, for the first stage of Q-school.

Cinderella stories come from the unlikeliest places. Having a teenaged women’s golfer from India in medal contention entering the final two rounds of the first Olympic women’s golf event in 116 years is about as unlikely as it gets.

And yet Aditi seems very relaxed, very composed about the whole thing. Probably more so than her dad Gudlamani, who’s on her bag this week.

“I don’t know who it comes from,” he said. “Not from me. I think her mom. Her mom is very focused, and she’s, in fact, the pillar of her whole golfing journey.”

It’s a journey not many people – and especially women -- make in cricket-mad India. Just five golfers from India are listed in the Rolex Rankings. The next closest to Aditi is Vani Kapoor, ranked 807th.
 
The most celebrated India-born golfer is Arjun Atwal, who became the first player from his country to play – and eventually win on – the PGA TOUR. His victory came six years ago at the Wyndham Championship, the tournament being held this week on TOUR. Perhaps it’s more than mere coincidence.

From the first time Aditi encountered golf, she was hooked. She was 5-1/2 years old during that fateful breakfast near the Karnataka Golf Association.
 
“We looked at the driving range where people are hitting balls,” Gudlanmani said. “We were very intrigued and just walked in.”

“I just clean the ball," said Gudlamani Ashok, the father and caddie of Aditi. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Aditi was drawn to the putting green. She stayed for two hours – practically long enough to think about lunch. “I really enjoyed putting,” Aditi said. “That’s how I learned the game. I started with putting.”

Less than a year later, she was playing in tournaments. She won her first tournament at age 9. She joined India’s national team at 12. There are no separate tournaments for boys and girls. She beat them all.

While winning 17 tournaments as an amateur, she kept breaking barriers. The first Indian player to do this, the first Indian player to win that. She’s the only Indian golfer to play in the Asian Youth Games, the Youth Olympic Games and the Asian Games. She won the Ladies’ European tour school at age 17. She turned pro in January.

Her name, which means “boundless,” is appropriate given her eagerness to learn and desire to improve.

“Golf every day is different,” she said. “You never hit the same shot twice. So every day is a new experience, and you can’t really come with any expectations. The game is bigger than all of us, so that’s what I like about it.”

Four years ago her mother, a former radio disk jockey, realized there was a chance Aditi could qualify for the Olympics, so they focused their energies and schedule toward that. This week, Aditi and her mother have Skyped every night. Their conversations last about an hour.

“Sometimes we’re both talking,” she said, “and then we can’t hear each other.”

She doesn’t have that kind of problem with her dad this week. They carry on conversations during rounds but not about golf strategy.

“I don’t know if anybody watched,” Gudlamani said. “I just clean the ball.”

On Wednesday when Aditi teed off to start her opening round, her dad was nearly in tears. Never could he imagine 13 years ago when his family finished breakfast one morning that it would take him to the Olympics, proudly carrying his daughter’s bag.

“I thanked her for this opportunity to be on her bag,” Gudlamani said. “Because as kids, we all dream when we play, when we’re 10, 12 years old, we used to think that one day we will be Olympians.

“I don’t think I can do that. But she brought me to the Olympics.”

It makes for a good story. Aditi said she’d like to attend college in India and get a degree in journalism. If she can produce a story as well as the one she’s creating this week, she’ll be an honor student.

For now, there are 36 holes left to become the most unlikely medalist in any sport in Rio. With the pressure mounting and a deep, world-class field, she may eventually fade. There would be no shame in that.

Her story is just beginning. Q-school next Monday. Hopefully a Tour career soon. A chance to make an impact in her country. Maybe one day women’s golf will be big enough in India that it won’t need to rely on a happenstance breakfast.

“We still need to have a lot more golf courses and a lot more juniors playing the sport,” Aditi said. “I’m hoping that happens soon.”

She’s doing her part this week.

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