For an 18-year-old to be out of home for close to eight weeks at a stretch, for the first time in her life, could be an unnerving experience. The feeling of being out of one’s comfort zone is enhanced when one is expected to compete at a high level in alien conditions.
Indian golfer Diksha Dagar had been to Australia for seven weeks, playing in several tournaments in which she performed creditably. It would have been understandable if the teenager felt homesick and jet-lagged and just went through the motions in her final event before the trip back home, the Women’s South African Open in Cape Town.
That Diksha’s father Narinder was there with her as a caddie, and a cook, partly alleviated the problem.
"I missed my mother’s cooking a lot, but my father used to prepare Indian food for me-steamed rice, mixed vegetables, scrambled eggs, dal, roti-at our BnB accommodation. We had also carried some stuff from home," the golfer told The Indian Express on her return to India.
Diksha had entered last week’s tournament on the back of some high finishes in Australia, most recently a top-5 finish at the NSW Open. She had even won a professional tournament on the Indian domestic tour while still an amateur. But a nightmarish start, in which she was four-over after three holes threatened to end her campaign even before it had started.
"The course (Westlake Golf Club) was a tough layout and it was very windy on the first day. I was feeling bad after the poor start. But held things together thereafter, and when we found that I was in the top-20 on the leaderboard among 126 players despite such a poor start, I knew I had a chance," Diksha says in a halting tone.
The next two rounds saw favourable conditions and Diksha took full advantage. A six-under round followed by a 3-under one put her in pole position when overnight leader and local hope Lee-Anne Pace faltered down the stretch. Diksha got the lead only on the penultimate hole of the tournament when the South African dropped a shot, and held on to it on the 18th. In doing so, she became just the second Indian, after Aditi Ashok, to win on the Ladies European Tour.
"I played an aggressive game, but still missed just one green in regulation on the second day. The wind was less of a factor so I could attack the pins and make some putts," the left-hander said.
Confidence was never in short supply and Diksha’s father just served to boost her confidence whenever she doubted herself.
"Even after she had missed the cut at a tournament in Victoria a few weeks ago, we saw how the other golfers were playing and concluded that id she has the right approach and cuts down on the big mistakes, she can be as good as anybody," Dagar, an armyman, said. "Once she gains more experience, she can get even better."
Diksha, who represented India at the 2018 Asian Games, gives a glimpse of her growing maturity when she says: "On tough courses, one has to accept bogeys sometimes, but it is vital to avoid big numbers at a hole."
"Golf is a game of probability. One can’t win every tournament, but the more one is in contention, the better one’s chances are."
After winning on the European tour, the natural progression will be to target qualification for the LPGA Tour in the United States. But the Dagars have different priorities
"We want her to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, and will look to the LPGA Tour only after that," Narinder said. "The qualification period is over two years and only 60 players will make it. Her Class XII examinations have begun but she will have to skip them. Let’s see, if she gets into a decent enough position on the Olympic qualification table, she may be able to appear for her exams through Open School."
Golf is an expensive sport and quality equipment as well as competing at a high level comes at a cost.
"Our problem is compounded by the fact that good clubs, especially those customised for left-handers, are not easily available in India. We bought a few good ones in Australia. We have been planning for her career for the last 10 years. The prize money she has won since turning pro has helped in the financial aspect, but even after her win in South Africa, no sponsor has yet got in touch," Dagar said.
The life of a professional golfer doesn’t allow much downtime. The next tournament on her schedule is the Jordan Open (April 4-6). That permits just about 10 days at home, when Diksha can feast on her mother’s cooking which she misses so much when she’s abroad.