Aditi Ashok, 23, might not be a household name or winner on the LPGA Tour quite yet. But back home in India, she's a top-ranked woman golfer, two-time Olympian and current second-place holder in Tokyo. In her first round of the women's golf tournament at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, No. 200-ranked Ashok maintained poise and consistency similar to that of No. 1-ranked Nelly Korda. After firing a four-under 67, one shot off the lead, Ashok found herself tied for second place with Korda heading into Thursday's second round at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Five years ago, Ashok teed it up in Rio at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. At the time, the only woman golfer representing India had no idea what type of impact her presence at the Games would have back home in India. Flash forward to today, she knows that competing at the women's golf event in Tokyo means more than just garnering more social media followers and socialising in the Olympic Village -- it means changing the golf game in India.
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Here we go, again
In 2016, the then 18-year-old Ashok shot back-to-back opening rounds of 68 at the Olympic Golf Club in Rio. For the first time in 112 years, golf returned to the Olympics and the teenager Ashok was making history as the youngest golfer, man or woman, in Rio.
As the only woman representing Team India in golf, Ashok quickly became an overnight sensation in her home country. She went on to tie for 41st in Rio.
After her first appearance in the Olympics, Ashok joined the LPGA Tour in 2017. This year, Ashok returned to the Games with new goals in mind. But her motivation remains the same.
"Last time, I was a rookie basically," Ashok said. "I just finished my high school exams and then I was at the Olympics in two months. But this time, I think definitely a lot more experience, just playing on the LPGA [Tour] the last five years has been kind of, makes you way better as a player than I was at Rio.
"I didn't finish as well as I wanted to last time, but just seeing the effect that it had on golf in India was inspiring and that's kind of what motivated me for this one as well."
During her first round in Tokyo on Wednesday, Ashok looked more confident than ever before. Everything seemed to flow. It was her second Olympics. She has been here before, but this time still felt different. She was no longer alone, this year joined by India's Diksha Dagar. And this time, she wasn't just going out there to play and represent her country. She was going out there to medal for India.
"Last time I think it was more just enjoying the experience and staying at the village, seeing all the other athletes, but this time I think definitely here to have a good finish, hopefully give my best, try and win a medal. I think having played the Olympics once definitely gets you more prepared, you're not as overawed by it. I mean it's still the Olympics, it's still really exciting, but, yeah, definitely more prepared for this one," Ashok said.
Growing the game (and social media numbers)
Looking back, Ashok admitted she should've known. But in her first appearance at the Olympics, Ashok had no idea what type of impact she'd have on the game in India. As an 18-year-old, individually representing India in women's golf, Ashok just went out there and played -- and that's all it took.
"Nobody [in India] really focused on women's golf," Ashok said. "I was just a rookie. I just turned pro, so nobody had many expectations of me either. But yeah, definitely it was surprising, and I think in a good way because I never thought the Olympics could impact golf that much in India. So knowing that it could bring that many more eyeballs to the sport was a good thing."
While golf might've remained a somewhat unknown sport in India, Ashok helped put it on the map even before she stepped foot in Rio. In 2013, she became the first and only Indian golfer to play the Asian South Games. Then, in 2014, she became the first and only Indian golfer to play the Youth Olympic Games and Asian Games.
In 2016, after competing in Rio, she finished her rookie year on the Ladies European Tour (LET) with three wins and earned Rookie of the Year. At the 2016 Hero Women's Indian Open, she became the first Indian woman to win a LET title.
After Rio, it wasn't until Ashok looked at her various social media accounts that she realised just how big of an impact she was making as a golfer in India.
"My social media following just blew up," Ashok remembered. "I think a lot of people were trying to figure out what golf was, so that they could understand how I was playing and if I had a chance to win a medal. I wasn't in India at the time, and I didn't go back for about another month but even then, I think for the next six months to a year everybody remembered and recognized me from the Olympics, even though I had won like three European Tour events after that, people still remembered me as the girl who did well at the Olympics. So, I think just knowing that in fact that it has kind of motivates me this week too."
The first thing she thought about when she noticed the impact she was making, thanks to her social media numbers shooting up?
"I think I had like 4,500 followers on Twitter and Facebook, and it jumped to like 14K overnight...I was like, 'OK, now I got to think about what I'm tweeting before I send it out.'"
When it comes to growing the game in India, and not just her social media following, Ashok stressed the importance of her own personal and professional development in the sport. Since her first appearance, she might be well known to certain people who remember Rio. But she knows that she still has to go out, represent and put herself in a position to bring home a medal if she really wants to impact the game.
"I think I'm a little more comfortable now than I was five years ago. I think you realize it's a lot of stuff comes with it that you maybe don't really like," Ashok said. "But it's important for little girls back home to have that image of a golfer internationally on the LPGA or at the Olympics and not just participating but also kind of contending here and there."
It wasn't that long ago when Ashok was one of the little girls in India looking for representation from women on the golf course.
It wasn't really planned, but at the age of five, Ashok first experienced what it felt like to touch a golf club. With her father Ashok Gudlamani, who worked in real estate, and her mother, Mash, who was a radio jockey, by her side, Ashok learned how to play golf with her family.
"Me and my parents started at the same time. We used to have breakfast at this restaurant that overlooked a golf driving range and we wanted to walk in and try it out," Ashok recalled from her childhood. "They gave me like a baby putter and that's kind of how I started playing golf. I enjoyed putting, I think I was there for like three hours just putting on the greens.
"That's kind of what got me started. And then eventually learned the whole game. And I think as a kid playing junior tournaments with other kids my age was something I never really got to experience in regular life, so just playing competitive sport with kids my age was really interesting for me and that's what kept me going back to the golf course."
Ashok said she never felt pressure from her family to play golf. At first, her parents weren't even really sure what the sport consisted of, but quickly, they caught on just like Ashok. While maybe just a hobby for them, Ashok's parents encouraged her to make a career out of her newfound passion for golf.
In 2016, Ashok's father caddied for her at her Olympic debut. Five years later, Ashok asked her mother to be on her bag.
"Last time, I had my dad on the bag, so the experience was just so incredible. I was like, I want to have my mom next time. And I made good on that promise," Ashok said.