Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Indian Open- Review

New Delhi, Oct 12: The putter made contact with the ball, it traveled at an achingly slow pace, the fists clenched together, eyes trained firmly on the ball, ‘cluck’ and immediately the flagstick fell to the ground, the cap went traveling into outer space and wild celebration followed…

You could be mistaken for thinking that was how the final few moments panned out for Liang Wen Chong, the winner of the 45th edition of the Indian Open but you would be wrong. The dramatic celebrations on the 18th green were kick started by his caddie who seemed to be a perfect match for the stoic look on the face of the Chinese talent through the week. The only time Liang let go of himself and allowed the moment to sink in was when he was lifted almost forcefully off the ground by the young caddie who finally seemed to have passed on some positive energy and Liang obliged with a double fisted thump in the air.

The last few major tournaments played at the Delhi Golf Club have heralded the rise of a new star and it wasn’t too much to expect another Indian win this year. Jyoti Randhawa was on the verge of a memorable hat trick and more importantly seemed all set to write his way into the record books but that was not how the script played out. Joining him in the expectations bandwagon were Jeev Milkha Singh, just shy of breaking into the top 50 in the world rankings again, S.S.P. Chowrasia who stunned a quality field earlier in the year to clinch the Indian Masters and of course the story of the week, the return of the prodigal son, the two time winner on the PGA Tour, Daniel Chopra.

It was almost as if the media was not willing to entertain any other possibility. Everything seemed just perfect, a million dollar event, a course that has been a happy hunting ground for Indians in the past and you could feel that the stage was set for another Indian win but the man from Zhongshan had other plans.

To say that his win was out of the blue would be demeaning the achievements of this young star who has emerged as the torchbearer of Chinese golf and carried forward the baton from the Chinese veteran Zhang Lian Wei. An Order of Merit winner on the Asian Tour, he has done his cause no harm by becoming the first Chinese golfer to play at the PGA Championship and also the first one to make the cut at the Open Championship earlier this year.

He served an emphatic notice on the first day and never relinquished his lead after that. While the gallery was following Daniel Chopra, word soon got around that a Chinese guy was playing a super round. As the murmurings grew louder, you could sense a distinct buzz in the air as one of the leaderboards showed Liang at 12 under par, five clear of Jeev Milkha Singh who had played his best ever round at the Delhi Golf Club. A super round does not begin to describe the enormity of his achievement as Liang had smashed the course record. The same course where Ernie Els had vowed never to return after getting ripped in the bushes, a place most players end up visiting through the course of their round with a sense of religious fervor. Ironically, it could have been a 59 had he not three putted on the 18th, a hole where you would struggle to do worse than a birdie. One cannot help but feel sorry for the little known Dutchman Guido Van Der Valk who took everyone by surprise, including himself, after he carded an 11 under in the second round. A day earlier, he would have been toasted as the story of the day, a day later, he was just another good round.

What was incredible about Liang’s conquest was the fact that he held on to the lead almost throughout the tournament except for a brief phase during the dying stages. Even in the third round, considered the moving day, the only thing close to dramatic was the Nilgai wandering across the 18th green, blissfully unaware of the activity around him as the people on the grandstand wore a bemused look.

But like every intriguing battle, this too had a twist in the tale. Everyone had resigned to the fact that Liang was going to run away with the title and there was no stopping him. Young Australian Darren Beck made a brave charge on the final day but it seemed to serve the purpose of propping him up the leaderboard more than anything else, or so it seemed!

On the home stretch with five holes to play, the leader, quite inexplicably, made a bogey after failing to get the ball out of the bunker from a fairly easy lie. Was that a minor blip or could we sense a hint of wavering nerves? The next hole, it happened again. From the middle of the fairway, Liang miraculously made a double bogey and suddenly a lot more people were in contention. A good few groups ahead of him, Beck birdied the final hole and for the first time in the week there was another name on top of the leaderboard. The soothsayers sprang out of nowhere to spell the end for Liang wen Chong.

But champions are not the kind to topple over like nine-pins. A fabulous tee shot on the 17th, hit the pin and left him with a 3 foot birdie which he gleefully accepted. The stage was set; a birdie on the last hole would seal the deal. His approach shot from the fairway landed right next to the greenside bunker leaving him with a fairly awkward stance to make a birdie in two.

As he stood next to the ball, his shadow stretched across the length of the bunker almost as if pleading to tell a story. But there was no more drama in store; he chipped the ball and it came to rest merely two feet from the pin. A steady putt and the Indian Open, after what seemed like an eternity, had a winner who did not go by the name of Randhawa.

The most poignant moment came when he posed for the camera, being coaxed by the people around to give the trophy a warm hug, he struggled to achieve that simple task. It took many retakes but the trophy was willing to wait. It had finally reached the hands of the most deserving candidate and it was in no mood to walk away. Finally, he managed that perfect pose and allowed the moment to be captured for posterity. On being quizzed about his plans to return, without batting an eyelid he said “I’ll be back!”