MIDLAND, MICHIGAN | How appropriate that a week before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies the world is being reintroduced Aditi Ashok, who burst into the world’s consciousness in Rio at the 2016 Games. Back then, the 19-year-old from India became the Cinderella story of golf’s return to the Olympics, firing a pair of 68s to contend at the halfway mark before falling away.
Now, at age 23 and with three Ladies European Tour victories on her resume, Ashok is on the cusp of another breakthrough. She and her partner, 22-year-old Thai Pajaree Anannarukarn enter the final round of the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational tied for the lead with the defending champions, Cydney Clanton and Jasime Suwannapura.
The Indian and Thai duo named their team The Spice Girls, a cute play on their bubbly personalities and the fact that their native foods can light up the uninitiated. “Thai and Indian food can be very spicy,” Ashok said with a raised eyebrow and a big smile.
On a more serious note, no Indian has ever won on the LPGA Tour, a fact that isn’t lost on Ashok. “I think it would be amazing, especially because we've always had men doing well on international tours but not as many women,” she said. “I think it would be amazing for golf in India. But for me, I've been trying really hard the last few years and learned a lot. So hopefully I can put it all together tomorrow.”
If she is to pull it all together, the key will be the player beside her.
Anannarukarn is from a country full of tour stars, including Suwannapura, who will be in the final group with her, and Moriya and Ariya Jutanugarn, who will start the final round two groups ahead and two shots behind. But the 22-year-old Anannarukarn has yet to break through, either on the LPGA Tour of Epson Tour. She’s been close – four top-15 finishes in her rookie year of 2019, which came on the heels of four top-10s, including one runner-up finish, in her single season on the Epson Tour. But you’d never know that she is winless from the way she has carried herself around Midland Country Club all week.
The Spice Girls are bogey free through 54 holes, a remarkable achievement given that two of the three rounds have been foursomes (alternate shot), one of the toughest formats in golf. To give you a basis for comparison, Lydia Ko and Danielle Kang, who have 21 wins and three major championships between them, carded three bogeys, a double and a triple in the third round alone. But not The Spice Girls. In alternate shot, they have fired 65 and 67 with no bogeys, scores that bracket a bogey-free 63 in fourball play.
“I don't think we were expecting anything other than just kind of playing each shot and supporting each other every shot,” Anannarukarn said.
Low expectations and enjoying each other’s company have been the keys so far. They have known each other since junior golfer days in Asia, something Ashok said brought them closer.
“There are just fewer Asians (playing junior golf),” she said. “Not Koreans but just Asians apart from Korea. So, we ended up playing a lot of tournaments together.”
That friendship has translated into a comfort level with each other’s games.
“With the team event, I know if I hit the greens, she's really confident with her irons and wedges, so if I just hit it close, maybe not super close, but if she sees a ball on the green, she can go straight at it,” Ashok said of the team strategy. “That's definitely one of the keys for fourball.”
As for foursomes, something Ashok has only played twice in her life and one of those was with her dad when she was 9 years old, she said, “I think when I'm playing by myself, obviously I'm trying my best. But I think having a partner who's going to hit your next shot adds pressure. But it also makes you a lot sharper because I know I want her to have the easiest shot possible or the easiest putt left.
“That's what motivates me to hit it close or hit it in a good spot.
“Yeah,” Anannarukarn jumped in. “I think what I like about alternate shot is that we are just supporting each other out there no matter what.”
Ashok added, “I think the pressure that comes with winning a golf tournament is not as much tomorrow because you know you have a partner who's playing another shot and you know if you miss a putt, she has a chance.”
There is a long way to go before a champion in this event is crowned. But Ashok has already come a long way. She is no longer the wide-eyed teenager from the Rio Games. She is a poised young woman with a purpose that is larger than herself.
“Golf-wise I feel I'm a bit better and a lot more experienced,” she said. “But I'd like to think I'm the same as a person because the Olympics came and went, and golf is still not as popular in India. So, I'm trying to do my best every week to make that happen.”