When Abhinav Bindra said that he had become a fan of golfer Aditi Ashok for her performance at the Tokyo Olympics, the former Olympic champion had company.

Almost everyone who saw or followed the 23-year-old Indian’s performance at the Olympics has become a fan of her for the way she played on the biggest stage, irrespective of whether they understood the sport of golf or not.

In fact, Aditi ensured that India actually learned how golf is played. Google numbers showed a huge upward trend as people went and searched for it. Bear in mind that golf in Tokyo began as early as 4 am on most days but such was the impact of her performance that people were still watching on the final day.

By the end of it, it didn’t matter to the watchers as much that Aditi narrowly missed a medal after being in top three for the majority of the tournament. It was a heartbreaking miss but a world No 200 (her ranking has since gone up to 154) going toe-to-toe with the best and finishing fourth was one of the more heartening stories of the Games.

After the initial emotional rollercoaster, Aditi is able to see the bright side too.

“It’s amazing the fact that just by me playing well at the Olympics, so many people watched golf,” Aditi told Scroll.in in an interview before the start of the ongoing Scottish Open. “I am really thankful for all the support that I got, there are no words to say how thankful I am for people to get up early to watch me play especially in a country where golf is not popular.”

Aditi added: “On social media where so many people would not ordinarily follow golf supporting me and sending messages was also really cool to see… The Prime Minister and President, so many people from different sports, Sachin Tendulkar, Abhinav Bindra, those kind of icons of Indian sport, it’s great to see that kind of support. Cricket is the most popular sport in our country and to have some legends from there tweeting about golf was great.”

It was agonising. It stings. But golfer Aditi Ashok’s fourth place at Tokyo 2020 is a reason for joy

Playing her second straight Olympics at the age of 23, Aditi was one of the big surprise packages for India. But the composure and consistency with which she played all the rounds was a sign of just how talented a golfer she is.

Heading into the fourth and final day of the weather-hit women’s golf competition. Aditi was placed second – behind only world No 1 and eventual champion Nelly Korda – but an inspired show from Japan’s Inami Mone and former world No 1 and medallist Lydia Ko meant she finished an agonising fourth despite a solid three-under par score.

“It was a great experience playing at the biggest stage there is. Not just playing but also having a chance, competing with world No 1 and former medallist was great. The fact that I could compete with them was also good for my confidence and belief in my game. I really enjoyed the four days though I am not happy that I finished fourth instead of getting a medal,” she said.

Aditi’s feat is made even more remarkable as she is still not at her 100% having recovered from Covid-19 in May. It’s why she said she was not able to deliver her best while driving (the long distance shots).

“This is a unique situation because I had Covid in May so that’s why my driving looked a lot worse than it used to be,” said Aditi. “At the beginning of the year it was a lot better, I was hitting it at least 15-20 yards longer on the drive. Covid took out a lot of strength from me. Also, it was televised all four days and I was playing with world No 1, so it looked like a very big gap. But yes definitely working on hitting it longer which I have to do because I have to gain my strength, That’s one of the immediate goals.”

Apart from the competition and the coronavirus recovery, the conditions in Tokyo were also challenging but Aditi – with her mother Maheshwari as caddie – ensured she stayed calm and hydrated. Her mother’s presence was a big factor here, but it was almost incidental.

“The main reason was that my dad caddied at Rio and I wanted my mom to have the Olympic experience,” she explained.

“But having my mom in Tokyo was great. She could keep me calm all four days, it’s nice to have someone you know where you can just relax and focus on hitting your shot. It also helped me make my own decisions and stick to it a lot more than normal or than it would be with any other caddie so that’s a bonus.”

Apart from the game and her mom by her side, another thing that stood out were her golf wood covers and she recounted a wonderful story behind it.

“The green one was given by Anirban Lahiri as a gift, I think he gave it to the whole team who made it. The tiger because it is an Indian animal and also because I was a huge Tiger Woods fan growing up,” Aditi said.

From Rio – where she was competing in her rookie season as a professional, months after finishing high school – to Tokyo, Aditi has constantly improved her game and the next step is to get her ranking higher.

“Playing on the LPGA and LET in the past five and six years respectively has been great for my game. I have gained so much experience, whether it is dealing with different weather, different courses, the travel... you get so much more seasoned in a way. I am now focussing on playing LPGA and LET and bettering my personal bests on both tours,” she added.

Her Tokyo show has put women’s golf on the map in India but how does a young child in India watching Aditi Ashok on TV take up the sport? Golf is not the most accessible sport in the country but the 23-year-old shared a vision of how it can reach more people: introducing young kids to golf and clubs accommodating juniors would go a long way.

“A big thing that should happen is grassroots level programs where girls are introduced to golf a lot more,” said Aditi. “In general, golf is not as popular in a country like India where women’s golf is another few steps behind.”

Aditi added: “It is not as easy to take up as some other sports. One of the main reasons I feel is because nobody gets exposed to golf at a young age. At school, you can play cricket, hockey, almost any sport but you never really get to try golf. That’s something that has to change. Schools would be the easiest, even if you take a ball, some clubs and a mat and have them try to hit. Build awareness about it and give them an opportunity. After that, if they want to try, they can come to golf clubs.

“The other thing is that that clubs can also do a lot more in terms of supporting juniors. Currently, a lot of golf clubs in India are for members, whereas juniors need the facility more. If kids want to pick up golf, they should be given access on weekends, which is usually a crowded time. Small things like that, although they don’t look big on the surface, they can be deterrents.”

For any sport to take off in India, infrastructure and inspiration are important. The latter has already been provided by Aditi Ashok at the Olympics, and this is just one milestone in what promises to be a big career.

Clarification: Aditi Ashok was ranked world No 200 during Tokyo 2020. Her latest ranking is 154.