It’s true that 2016 was the year of the Indian sportswoman. We switched on to our television sets to see the likes of PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Deepa Malik and Dipa Karmakar blazing a path to glory and we glowed with pride at what these women had been able to achieve.

The youngest of these trail-blazers is just 18 and is scripting her own path-breaking journey away from the spotlight of Indian audiences. You may not have caught her on television, you may not have read pieces about her fantastic year, you may not have even heard of her, but this is one story that the narrative of Indian sports in 2016 is incomplete without.

It is impossible to describe Aditi Ashok’s 2016 without getting excited about her “boundless” (Aditi in Sanskrit) potential, but we won’t resort to the clichés – no comparisons with Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam and when they started golfing or won their first tournaments.

At 18, when you and I were busy getting our driving licenses or entering college, this girl has two Ladies European Tour wins.

This story is all about Aditi; it deserves to be so.

Aditi finished second on the LET Order of Merit 2016
Aditi finished second on the LET Order of Merit 2016

Rookie of the Year

If you’re good enough, you’re old enough – This adage holds most true for Aditi, whose year has had a dash of everything from winning Qualifying Tour School to being the youngest woman to participate in the Olympic women’s golf tournament at Rio to becoming the first Indian woman to win a Ladies European Tour event.

Aditi, in conversation with Scroll.in, talked about her 2016: “I have had a great 2016 and I would like to better my performances week after week whether it’s on the Ladies European Tour or the Ladies Professional Golfer’s Association. I was playing well all through the year. I’d say my performances throughout the year as an amateur in 2015 and winning the LET Q school in Dec 2015 fueled my decision to turn professional. I knew I was ready to compete at the world stage. And my performances kept reaffirming that fact through the year.”

She earned her pro status by winning the Lalla Aicha Tour School in December 2015, but did she ever imagine that her year would turn out like this – finishing second on the LET Order of Merit worldwide, finishing as Rookie of the Year, nine top-10 finishes including two championship wins?

“In a way, yes, as I had prepared with a goal to play golf professionally and having played in a lot of LET tournaments and winning Q School only helped gain confidence before turning professional, so I knew I would be good enough to play out here. It was my goal to win a tournament during my rookie year and also try and win the Order of Merit. And I played well for the most part of the year and achieved most of my goals so it was a great rookie season,” Aditi said.

Coaches speak about Aditi

The Bangalore-based teenager first picked up golf when she was five-and-a-half years old. Nicolas Cabaret, her performance training coach spoke about his first encounter with the golfer. “The first time I met Aditi, it was in 2010 in Bangalore. I immediately saw a 11-year-old girl with a big potential and a more mature personality compared with the children of her age. She already knew what she wanted. I had to go back to France but still we managed to continue working together. I’ve been seeing her growing up as a future professional athlete since that day. She is more experienced, she has a better understanding of her needs to improve her game. Aditi is only 18 and she is one of the most dedicated athletes I have ever met. She will do everything she can to ensure that she performs well (golf, fitness, mental energy, recovery, nutrition).”

Steven Giuliano, her golf coach, shed some light on what led Aditi to such success in her rookie year. “Aditi is very competitive and I feel when she had the opportunity to play a run of tournaments throughout the second half of the year, she was able to settle in build some momentum and find her game. Aditi has a lot of trust in what she is working on and how she plays which is a key attribute to have as a competitive golfer or athlete.”

Things haven’t always been easy for Aditi. In Rio, she was the youngest of the 60-strong field and carded identical rounds of three-under par and positioned herself for an unlikely medal only to fall away in the last two rounds, carding a 79 and a 76 amidst adverse conditions.

She insists that the experience has made her stronger. “In fact, I won a qualifier to get entry to a major a few weeks before Rio but I think the attention I got from the world media while at Rio became a bigger highlight than any other. Playing conditions were very different everyday at Rio and it was windy on the third day. But playing the Olympics was still a great experience overall.”

Post Rio, she would come out a different player, going on to record a string of top-10 finishes before becoming the first Indian woman to win an LET event, the Hero Women’s Indian Open. She didn’t stop there, though, following her maiden win with another, arguably her greatest triumph till date at the Qatar Ladies Open, finishing three strokes ahead of Sweden’s Caroline Hedwall.

She declined when asked to choose her most memorable victory our of the two. “Both. Indian Open was my first win, so it will always be special and I would say Qatar Ladies Open because I played much better golf and I won back-to-back on the LET, which is not very common. It is a great feeling to know I’ve achieved goals that I set for myself for the year.”

Following those two wins, Aditi ended the year on a strong note, finishing third at the Dubai Ladies Masters. Finishing only behind American Beth Allen on the Order of Merit, Aditi was a runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award, and in terms of prize money, was the third most successful rookie ever, behind Hedwall in 2011 and Carlota Ciganda in 2012.

Aditi was way ahead of the next best rookie, Nuria Iturrios
Aditi was way ahead of the next best rookie, Nuria Iturrios

Inspirations and the way forward

One of her inspirations is Laura Davies, who won the Rookie of the Year in 1985 and went on to win the Order of Merit seven times. “She is a great inspiration to a lot of youngsters and myself. I have walked and watched her play at a few tournaments. Even to this day she enjoys competing with youngsters on tour, which is equally inspiring,” adding that Beth had a great season and it was amazing to watch.

She may enjoy watching other golfers, but she sticks to her own style. “I have also grown up watching a lot of golfers like Annika Sorenstam, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy. But I don’t try to emulate anybody while playing, I just be myself.”

Aditi, who enjoys watching movies and other sports, reading books and listening to music, counts the Golden State Warriors among her favourite sports teams. She will play in the LPGA next season after earning a membership and a partial card for the upcoming year alongside 30 other rookies and will shuttle between the LPGA and LET tours, aiming to play as many tournaments as possible.

Cabaret hopes to have her equipped with any possible jet lag that might creep in. “As a world class athlete, she has to travel and compete a lot. My work is to help her to better deal with her hectic schedule with the aim to be both physically and mentally ready to compete and in a manner abstracted from the fatigue.”

Aditi is bracing herself for the long season ahead. “Traveling is very much an integral part of playing professional golf. I have prepared for this from a very young age and have the experience of travelling for international tournaments, so I would say I’ve learnt to manage and perform well.”

Guiliano and Aditi have been working on taking her game to a different level and he spoke about some areas of focus. “I feel her iron play has improved quite a lot over the past year or so, which has certainly helped to put her in a position to attack on the greens. We are working on developing a great variety of shots around the green and, yes, slowly developing some extra speed in her swing to improve her driving distance. This will be an important factor on some of the longer courses on the LPGA.”

Aditi will have company on the LET next year. Amandeep Drall, Vani Kapoor and Neha Tripathi earned full status, while Sharmila Nicollet and Saaniya Sharma have bagged partial cards, taking the total number of Indians to six. “Ladies golf in India and broadly in Asia has been fast growing over the last few years and this is great for the game. It can only get better over time.”

For 2017, Aditi will look to scale greater heights. She doesn’t have to do anything special, merely continue the way she has approached this year. If she manages to do that, what she can achieve may indeed be boundless.

Lest you have forgotten by the end of the story, she is only 18.

This is the fourth of a five-part series listing the top five Indian sportspersons of the year. Indian junior hockey captain Harjeet Singh was #5, Olympic silver medal-winning shuttler PV Sindhu was #4 and gymnast Dipa Karmakar was #3.