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CARRY ON, JEEV

When Digraj Singh, director, Tiger Sports Marketing, learnt of Jeev Milkha Singh’s victory in the Volvo Masters, his first thoughts went back to the day his golfer buddy blew up the amateur India Open tournament.

It was in the late 1980s. The two teenagers were sitting in Jeev’s Chandigarh home, their heads bent down, as Jeev’s father, Milkha Singh, gave them a piece of his mind. “He was livid. He told Jeev, ‘Ek chotti si ball control nahi hondi hai (you can’t control a small ball),” remembers Digraj.

Milkha Singh — the legendary sprinter of the Sixties — would have taken that back by now. Last week, his son, 34-year-old Jeev Milkha Singh, won the Volvo Masters at Sotogrande in Spain. The win matters because the tournament is among the three biggest events in Europe and no Indian has gone that far.

“This is a great win for Indian golf,” says fellow golfer Jyoti Randhawa. “Jeev has set a very high standard for others. It will add new zing to golf and encourage youngsters to take up the sport seriously,” he adds.

For Jeev, this year’s twin wins have got the monkey off his back. The golfer ended a seven-year drought when he won the Volvo China Open — a co-sanctioned event between the Asian and European tours — in April this year. “Jeev had been written off by critics,” says golfer Shiv Kapur. “He was hauled up for his non-textbook style of playing golf.”

But Jeev, clearly, came back with a vengeance. With a win that can be compared to Prakash Padukone’s victory in the All England badminton championships in 1980, he has given India its finest sporting moment in many years. Also, with the Volvo Masters’ prize money of $840,000, he has bagged a bigger booty than any Indian who plays sports for a living.

Jeev — ranked Asia’s number one golfer — says reverse psychology worked for him. At the Volvo China Open this year, he didn’t play to win. “I have always tried too hard to win,” Jeev said after the victory in Beijing. “This time, I went in thinking if it doesn’t happen, no sweat.”

Born with the genes of two sports persons — mother Nirmal Kaur captained the Indian volleyball team — Jeev was playing golf even before he learnt his time-tables. Like Tiger Woods, he was introduced to the sport as a caddy, in hometown Chandigarh. “I used to carry my father’s golf clubs when he played. I was awestruck at how a small ball could be hit with such power over long distances,” remembers Jeev. By the time he turned eight, studies had taken a back seat. “It was only golf,” he says.

Jeev is known to joke that he took up golf because he wanted to play a game that he could keep at till the age of 70. But those who know him say he is passionate about the sport.

Jeev’s parents did not want him to make a career out of sports — they thought it had no future. When their eight-year-old son was found spending more time on the golf course than in class, he was packed off to a boarding school in Shimla. “Even there, Jeev kept in touch with the game. He was abreast with all golfing developments. We finally gave in and let him pursue the sport,” says mother Nirmal Kaur.

Buddy Digraj Singh remembers the first time he met Jeev. A teenager, Jeev was playing at the Bangalore Golf Course. He had just hit a second shot. “The ball was still in flight. Jeev was walking behind it and saying, ‘Get into the hole’,” remembers Singh.

As a young golfer, Jeev worked hard on anger management. “He would lose his cool easily. He laboured to learn to keep his composure,” says Digraj Singh.

Singh recalls playing the National Games with Jeev. Both were amateurs. “All cameras were on Jeev, known then as Milkha Singh’s son. He got off to a good start,” says Singh.

In the eighth hole, Jeev made a glaring mistake — a double bogey — and went to par. “Jeev was visibly upset. But then, to keep his calm, he got philosophical. He told me these things happened,” recalls Singh.

Things kept going wrong. And in the fifteenth hole, he missed a small put. “Jeev let out such a cry of agony, it reverberated right up to the spectator stands,” Singh says.

In the early 1990s, Jeev travelled to England to participate in a golf championship that fetched him a scholarship at the Abilene Christian University in Texas in the US. Jeev remembers the golf more than the degree in business and international studies.

He soon became big in the Texas golf circuit — winning the Abilene Invitational and also titles in Oklahoma and California. In 1993, he turned professional after winning the Collegiate Player of the Year.

In Indian golf circles, Jeev — who idolises golfer Fred Couples — is known as the Marathon Man. “He plays 42 weeks of golf in a year,” says Jyoti Randhawa. To put that in perspective, Tiger Woods plays 25 to 26 weeks in a year. “Jeev has one of the toughest golfing schedules,” says Shiv Kapur.

In 2000, Jeev almost gave up golf when he suffered a nasty wrist injury. “It was an injury many golfers wouldn’t have overcome,” says father Milkha Singh. “Jeev used to cry and had almost given up the game,” he adds. But he got over it.

Next came the mental battle of getting back into the game. “When I came back after the injury, I wasn’t thinking the same way. I was putting pressure on myself,” says Jeev about his post-injury golf. The results were disastrous — he went on a match losing spree.

With golf’s slow pace and extended reaction time — where a player can ponder over each shot — mental toughness is imperative. “Jeev focussed on getting his mental make-up right. He consulted an instructor, read books and created his own positive thinking process,” says Digraj Singh.

With his game back in order, Jeev says golf has taught him a big lesson. “The most important thing I’ve learnt is to keep fighting,” he says.

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