This one stings. This one stings because Aditi Ashok did everything right and yet wound-up inches from an historic Olympic medal in golf.
She played with and outscored World No 1, and now Olympic champion, Nelly Korda 136 to 138 over the last two rounds. This despite Korda outdriving her by as much as 50 yards on some holes. She led the field by a comfortable distance in strokes gained – putting, a statistic that shows how much of an advantage a player has gained in that particular skill. She made just five bogeys all week, third best in the field. She made 20 birdies, fourth best in the field.
Yet it wasn’t enough to win a medal. Yes, this one stings.
“I didn’t leave anything out there,” the 23-year-old Aditi said after her round. “I think I gave it my hundred percent but, yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals kind of sucks.”
But Aditi’s fourth-place finish, as agonising as it is, is also a reason for hope, and yes, even joy. The joy of watching an unheralded Indian athlete compete against the very best in the world and hold her own. Aditi is ranked 200th in the world. She wasn’t supposed to be in medal contention. She wasn’t supposed to push the World No 1 all the way to the 72nd hole. She wasn’t supposed to go toe-to-toe with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, a former teenage phenom and World No 1. This was Aditi showing that she belonged on the biggest stage in sports. That she wasn’t there simply to make up the numbers; that she was there to win. And most importantly, that she might actually win.
She showed immense mental strength in sticking with her game plan. She didn’t let herself get intimidated by the length of her competitors and pushed into making mistakes. She played her own game. She didn’t drive the ball as straight in the final round as she had in the earlier rounds – hitting only 5/14 fairways, which put pressure on her scoring. “It’s hard to get birdie putts or hit greens when you’re not in the fairway. So, yeah, that was definitely the hardest part to make a score today,” she said.
But her short game and putting were outstanding all four days. At times, it felt like she was willing the ball into hole. She made putt after crucial putt – for par on the 12th hole, for birdies on the 13th and 14th holes - to stay in touch with Korda and keep pace with Ko and Japanese golfer Inami Mone, who would win bronze and silver, respectively. She forced Ko and Mone to shoot spectacular 6-under par rounds of 65 just to edge ahead of her in the chase for a medal. Phil Mickelson’s former caddie, Jim McKay, called her putting performance, “The best I’ve seen this year on any tour.”
Her play has put women’s golf on the sporting map in India and earned her legions of new fans across the country, including legendary Olympians such as Abhinav Bindra. People woke up before the sun, blurry-eyed but excited to watch her play and contend for a medal. People who, a few days ago, wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between golf and gilly danda were now learning the difference between a birdie and a bogey. Aditi didn’t disappoint any of them.
What’s more she did it despite having contracted Covid-19 in May and June while in India and still hadn’t fully recovered her strength. She also had her mother as a caddie rather than her father, who usually carries her bag. She said she was making good on the promise she had made to her.
On the course, Aditi, mature and more experienced from her outing at Rio 2016 as a teenager, was now taking most of the decisions herself, and made sure she committed to them.
At the end of the tournament, one of the commentators stated on air: “You do not settle for silver or bronze at the Olympics. You win silver, you win bronze. And Aditi Ashok can hold her head high for her fourth-place finish.” Once the pain of just missing a medal wears off, hopefully Aditi will see all that she has accomplished, rather than what she didn’t.
Five years ago in Rio, at the tender age of 18, Aditi briefly led the women’s golf event during the second round. She would fade to finish 41st but it was a learning experience more than anything else. This time she showed she had learned her lessons well. May this result turn out to be a harbinger of things to come too.