Anika Verma plays golf so the first question is always about her name. Is she named after the legend Annika Sorenstam? She laughs and says, "No. That's a coincidence. People ask me this question a lot. My name was picked as 'Anika' because it is a name for Goddess Durga." Indeed Goddess Durga is much revered in India.
Anika is slowly but steadily making her way up in golf. This week Anika became the first Indian woman to tee off at the 125-year-old highly prestigious US Women's Amateur Championship at the Woodmont Country Club, Rockville in Maryland.
Back in 2016, Aditi Ashok had a chance to become the first after reaching No 11 in Women's Amateur rankings by the end of 2015. However, Aditi chose to turn pro and went on to win the 2016 Hero Women's Indian Open. Aditi now plays on the LPGA Tour.
When told she would be the first Indian to tee up at the US Women's Amateur, Anika was surprised but thrilled at the honour.
Next, she was listed as a player from the US as her current address is Roseville in the US. But when this author pointed out that to her, she got it corrected at the time of registration. "Now she has India and the Indian flag against her name," said her proud mother, Sonal, who is with Anika right now at Woodmont Golf and Country Club in the United States.
File image of Anika Verma. Image courtesy: Special arrangement/Anika Verma
Anika will play the two stroke play rounds on 3-4 August from which the top 64 players will move onto match play rounds leading to a 36-hole final on 9 August. This year with no qualifiers being held the field was filled with exemptions on the basis of World rankings and other performances. The field was also reduced to 132 players instead of the usual 156 players.
Anika hit headlines at Hero Women's Indian Open
Anika was just 15 when she hit the headlines last year in 2019. She finished as the best Indian at fifth in the Hero Women's Indian Open, the annual Ladies European Tour event held in India. Since then a lot has happened. She also turned 16 on 5 April.
Her family, seeing her golfing talent, had decided to shift base to the US in early 2019 so that she can later play college golf and make a career in the sport. "We decided to move to the US to further her golf career," says her mother, Sonal and the family is now based in Sacramento, California.
Anika finished 17th at the US Girls Junior Championships in 2019 and in December she won the IMG Academy Junior World Challenge by an eight-shot margin. In between she finished Top-5 at the Hero Women's Indian Open, which had top professionals from over 20 countries.
Coached by Noah Montgomery
Anika trains with American Noah Montgomery, who also coaches top Indian professional Gaganjeet Bhullar, winner of nine Asian Tour titles, and the Madan sisters, Astha and Nishtha, both of whom have turned pro. Nishtha recently won her maiden pro title at the Kentucky Women's Open.
She studies at Granite Bay High School and trains with Montgomery. "We have worked hard for this event. It is a great break for her and I am helping her with the mental side of the game as well," says Montgomery. "The Indian kids work very hard and are sincere."
Anika added, "I was disappointed at not being able to come to India for the Hero Women's Indian Open, but I understand the seriousness of the situation. I totally agree with the decision to cancel this year's tournament as battling Covid-19 is our first priority."
"I really cherish my memories of making my country proud during Hero Women's Indian Open last year," she added.
Playing golf during the pandemic
Anika has had to forego a lot of events on account of the pandemic. She said, "As a 16-year-old during the pandemic I haven't been able to do much in high school as well as golf. COVID-19 has definitely affected my golf season this year. The year started with Women's Amateur Asia Pacific being postponed to October (and now it is off for this year). During the 'shelter in place' my regular school shifted to online schooling."
She went on, "My other tournaments such as Thunderbird, USGA qualifiers, IMG Junior and the World Amateur championship got cancelled just like the Hero Women's Indian Open. Although my season was cut short I am grateful to be given the opportunity to understand my shortcomings and improve them while working with my coach."
Not one to sit and wait, Anika seized the chance to play on the Cactus Tour, which has also seen LPGA and US-based Ladies European Tour players in action. "I was given the chance to play the Cactus Tour because the government of Arizona State allowed the golf courses to stay open as long as social distancing rules were strictly followed and precautions are being taken," she said.
She went on, "I was very grateful to be able to play as many other people around the world did not have this opportunity (of playing Cactus Tour). Playing golf during these times was a very different experience with social distancing, not being able to touch the pin, playing without bunker rakes and keeping hands sanitized at all times. I am happy to continue playing the Cactus Tour events till things get better. Playing golf this year has been a very unique experience and I hope to come back stronger next season."
And now comes this opportunity to play the US Women's Amateur at Woodmont Country Club. "This is really amazing," she said when she first learnt of the invite.
Regardless of how she does this week " she will go into the Indian golf record books as the first Indian to play the US Women's Amateur Championship. At 16 that is indeed a big deal. But one is sure there is lots more to come from this youngster.