How Aditi Ashok, World No. 200, got a nation to wake up at 5 a.m. and watch golf

Aditi Ashok plays a shot out of the bunker on the seventh hole in the final round at the Tokyo Olympics. YOSHI IWAMOTO/AFP via Getty Images

For three days, an Indian girl in a quiet corner of the Tokyo suburbs had been raising the roof. As she gritted through the fourth day, sports fans in India - and NRIs and PIOs across the world - tuned in to watch at 5 a.m., refreshing leaderboard scores, looking up birdies and bogeys, and, for five hours, wondering what bunker they'd been holed up in.

Aditi Ashok, 23 years old and ranked 200 in the world, fought a stacked field before missing a birdie and slipping out of medal contention in the final couple of holes. India at the Olympics and torturous fourth-place finishes are a recurrent, scarred theme. Ashok now finds a place on it. But for an Indian golfer getting this close to the medals, she already sunk a putt into history.

This was her second Olympics. The first came two months after she finished high school. She was the youngest golfer in the Rio field and hung out in the top eight for two of the four rounds before dropping off. Her social media following blew up overnight then.

For the groggy followers and even first-time watchers of the sport, Ashok's putting game has been a marvel to watch. Her reading of the greens is something of an envy among her peers. "She rolls it really nicely," Nelly Korda, the World No. 1 who finished with gold for USA, said of her. "She has some kind of swag on the putting green and she owns it."

Putting is almost a game on its own. And there's a reason why Ashok's is so incredible: She learnt the sport in reverse. As a five-year-old, she and her parents would have breakfast at a restaurant overlooking a driving range in Bengaluru. None of them had played the sport before and thought to try it out for a lark. Since there were no golf clubs in her size, she was given a cut-down putter. The first thing she learnt then was not to smash a drive but to sink a putt.

She kept going back to fill herself in on the other parts of the game. She would slowly fix the pieces together, like the 1000-piece Frank lighthouse puzzle she aced and proudly showed off on social media during the lockdown last year.

Growing up, she was a bit of an unusual teen. "If Aditi had a problem with bunker shots, she would spend hours in the bunker until she figured it out," former Indian golf amateur Nonita Lall Quereshi told ESPN. "She was so driven even as a young kid. I don't know too many 12-year-olds who are willing to put in that sort of commitment into the game. She never really let any of the usual distractions teens may have, get in the way."

By the time she was 13, she'd begun beating Indian pros. She became the second Indian woman to make the LPGA tour and the first to win a Ladies European title at the women's India Open.

For all her success, she's been largely by herself.

"Her parents have her back so it's been a sheltered existence for her," Nonita adds. "Other than that, there's been little support. Just to be travelling every week to a different country for tournaments without a major backing can't be easy."

Ashok usually has her father Gudlamani on her bag, but this time chose her mother for the job. While her father may be the more technically sound caddie, sometimes golfers are just looking for calm between the cocoons of concentration in 72 rounds over four days.

The pandemic turned out to be a bit of a sand trap for Ashok. She was stranded in India during the lockdown and, starved of access to the course and tournaments, she hit irons off a foot mat into curtains hung on a clothesline on the terrace of her Bangalore home. She managed to practise chips and putts indoors, although there was no way she could hit drivers or wedges. She also gave ambidexterity a shot, practising writing words and sentences with her non-dominant left hand. She also caught the virus herself in May, which sapped some of her strength and affected the length of her shots.

"She was not worried about the extra yardage or that everyone was bombing it way past her length," says Nonita. "That's quite a good way to look at it. She is really focused and can come across as someone with a serious bent of mind. Not many know, she's quite a mimic."

Between Rio and Tokyo, Ashok has also taken something of a mental leap. If she was a rookie five years ago, being a seasoned campaigner on the tour has taught her to hold her own against just about any of the big names. Champika Sayal attests to the graph. The Secretary General of the Women's Golf Association of India was in attendance in Rio during Ashok's Olympic debut.

"Earlier, she would be trying too hard in the final round. Now she's got over the pressure bug. She's begun enjoying her game, has spades of mental strength and the ability to fight back."

After the third round on Friday, Ashok told the Olympic Channel that even though no one back in India really expected her to be in medal contention, she's trying to get there. Eventually, she came up just a bit short but not without perhaps setting some sort of attention going for her sport in India.

"It's huge for women's golf in India," Sayal adds. "When you have someone home-grown coming so close to a medal, it changes the belief system. It's very different from looking at Americans or Europeans who are doing well on the Tour, because we don't have what they have. In our time, we were told women should be homemakers and don't belong to courses. Aditi has had kids, parents and people who've never watched a round of golf before in India wake up for it this weekend. Isn't that incredible?"

It's Ashok's way of telling her country why golf and its women players could do with a little more love. To be doubly sure that we're listening, she said it with a fight and a fourth place.