“I never grew up thinking an Indian girl could actually win”
Aditi Ashok reveals how she hopes to inspire the next generation of female golfers in India, and reflects on how her experiences at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014 helped prepare her for life on the elite stage.
How do you reflect on your experiences at the YOG Nanjing 2014?
“Oh, it was a fun two weeks. I think it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a tournament, because you don't usually all stay in the same place, and you don’t get to meet other athletes. But for the Youth Olympic Games, I was there for the whole experience. I think it was little more than two weeks, and it was fun, it was new. Coming from India, I’d never really experienced any events like it. I had been to the Asian Youth Games but, of course, the Youth Olympic Games were much bigger than that. And I obviously knew that golf was going to be part of the Olympic Games Rio 2016 by then. So just having the Youth Olympic experience made me want to go to Rio even more.”
What are some of your favourite memories from Nanjing?
“I think just generally the village experience: it was a lot of fun to interact with kids from other countries and just learn about different parts of the world. And probably the most favourite thing for me was exchanging the lapel pins – that was a big hobby of mine. Being in that atmosphere, it was just fun to go and exchange pins with people. That was kind of my secondary goal during the Games. You’re trying to think what pins you can exchange, and what the other person would say yes to, and you try to collect more so that you can exchange two for one. It was a lot of fun and I came home with so many – at least 50!”
Were you able to learn a lot from your experience in Nanjing that you were then able to take forward to Rio two years later?
“Yes, definitely, because I had a lot of expectations going into the Youth Olympic Games and I felt like I didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped, or as well as everybody else back home hoped too. So I learnt about dealing with that big stage – it’s not anything like a golf tournament is – and that was the same with the Olympic Games in Rio. So getting that experience [in Nanjing] prepared me for Rio.”
You were still only 18 when you competed at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. What was that experience like for you?
“I think just getting to Rio was a huge thing for me, because I didn’t turn professional until maybe six months before the qualifying date. I was effectively an amateur for most of the qualifying period, trying to get into professional events so that I could qualify for Rio. I think I was one of the last players to get in and I was just really happy with that, as that had been my main goal. And then the first two days I ended up playing really well, which was not something that I expected, but I was happy about it. I didn’t finish off the tournament that well, but it was still a great experience. I definitely learned a lot that week.”
You were in the top 10 after each of the first two rounds in Rio. Did your performances there help boost golf’s profile in India?
“I wasn’t aware of everything. My mother was back home, so she was keeping track of everything that happening, but I do know my Twitter [following] grew from maybe 700 at the start of the Games to maybe 14,000 after the first round, which is quite a big jump overnight! Back home, a lot of people who didn’t really follow golf, or even know what golf was, started searching on Google or social media, trying to find out more about me or about the sport. That was really interesting because, until the Olympic Games, nobody in India would have been able to name the best male or female golfers in the country. But I think that changed a lot with Rio 2016, and now you see more players dreaming about playing in the Olympic Games in the future.”
A few months after Rio, you got your first professional win at the Women's Indian Open on the Ladies European Tour (LET). Did that help elevate the game even further?
“Yes, definitely. On the men’s side, there has always been a European Tour event in India, and there have always been good guys from India who have done well. But for the women, we’ve only had the Indian Open since 2007 and, until I won it in 2016, there has never been a winner from India. So I think that was huge, and I was just so happy that I was able to win my first event at home. It was great, with a lot of crowds, and it was a fun week. I never grew up thinking an Indian girl could actually win. But I know now that all the Indian amateurs and juniors who play the event can see that there is an Indian girl who has won this before. I hope that is something that can inspire the next generation and, if you look at the number of girls trying to play golf in India, I think it has already improved the situation for the girls. So it was definitely a great moment in my career, even if I didn’t know the full effect of it then as I do now.”
Is it important to you to be a role model and inspire the next generation of female golfers in India?
“Yes, definitely. It’s obviously not why I started, or what I’m thinking about when I practise every day; but it is definitely something that's at the back of my mind, because I know I’m pretty much one of the only Indian women out there right now. So it’s important for me to keep doing well and keep playing in big events. Growing up in India, women’s golf wasn’t a big thing. You could really only see the men’s events on TV; you couldn’t watch the women. So being able to increase that exposure for women’s golf in India is definitely important. Hopefully I can continue to play good golf and keep achieving milestones – like getting my three wins and being named Rookie of the Year. All those things can help another junior see what’s possible, and then they can think that they can do it as well.”