Swinging star

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By ACE GOLFER JEEV MILKHA SINGH IS NOW AIMING FOR A SPOT IN THE WORLD TOP 25, SAYS CHITRA PAPNAI
  • Published 22.02.09
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Jeev Milkha Singh is chasing an American Dream. After becoming Asia’s top golfer last year, he has now firmly turned his eyes on the New World — to urgently fill the gap in his trophy cabinet. “I’ve won on every major international circuit except the US PGA Tour. So I would like to win there,” says Jeev.

For Jeev, 2008 was a special year. True, he has won the Asian Championship once before in 2006. But now, he’s not only the Asian champion — he’s also climbed in the world of golf to No. 33 in the Official World Golf Rankings.

That puts him firmly in the top league and ensures that he’s not just another of golf’s journeymen who play the circuit without really winning anything big.

Rishi Narain, Asian Games gold medallist in golf, says: “Jeev has moved far beyond being a journeyman and has had a meteoric rise after the Volvo Masters 2006. Once a player makes it to the top 35 ranking he establishes his name on the world stage,’’ says Narain, who runs a golf management and marketing company.

Jeev, 38, who’s the son of the legendary Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh, has even greater ambitions for the future. He says in steely tones: “My goal is to make it to the top 25.”

For Jeev, 2008 was a reflection of 2006 which saw him winning across all the important tournaments — the European, Japanese, and Australasian Tours — and even claiming the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit title.

He had made a huge comeback in 2006 and resurrected his golfing career after a seven year drought. Back then, he broke the jinx with a winning streak and walked away with trophies like the Volvo Masters, Volvo China Open, Casio World Open and Golf Nippon Series JT Cup.

Quite like a replay of 2006, last year saw Jeev snapping up some plum awards (and lots of moolah). At Barclays Singapore Open — a top Asian event — in November, he became the first player to earn more than $1 million in a season on the Asian Tour. Further, he tasted success at the Bank Austria Golf Open on the European Tour and Nagashima Shigeo Invitational Sega Sammy Cup on the Japan Tour.

And the most bitter-sweet victory came in Japan in December. He went on to win the Nippon Series JT Cup in Japan despite a huge personal tragedy. Just five days before the tournament, his wife, Kudrat, gave birth to a still-born baby.

Though Jeev wanted to withdraw from the game, Kudrat insisted that he went ahead and played. At the end of the game, Jeev emerged victorious and at the 33rd place on the Official World Golf Ranking.

Playing in the aftermath of this emotional upheaval, Jeev reckons it was the toughest tournament he has ever played and it will stay with him for the rest of his life.

But Jeev carries his fame lightly. You catch the sultan of swing at Chandigarh’s CGA golf range, hard at practise as he’s poised to take off for the Northern Trust Open in California.

He takes the occasional break and warmly catches up with fans who are waiting patiently to click pictures with him. But post the handshakes and pictures, he’s back at taking swings.

Jeev has some busy months ahead. He will play five tournaments before heading off to Augusta National, Georgia, in April for The Masters, which will determine his American fate.

Jeev makes it clear that his focus is the US and Europe this year and he will only play three tournaments in Asia. “I have won the Order of Merit twice so I want to prove myself on a bigger stage,” he quips.

From now on he’s busy playing tournaments and the Northern Trust Open in California will be followed by WGC — Accenture Match Play. Next on the list are the WGC — CA Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida and the Shell Houston Open in Texas.

Though Jeev has played on greens around the world, Augusta remains his favourite course. “He likes courses which are designed such that the player needs to use his or her imagination,” says Jeev’s childhood friend and swing coach, Amritinder Singh.

To gear up for the US challenge, Jeev says he is working hard on his mental and physical well-being. He heavily relies on yoga to attain the balance required for the game.

“I practise yoga everyday,” says Jeev. So it is not surprising that Jeev is an early bird. His fitness routine begins at 6.30 am with him devoting two hours to yoga. And of course, the rest of the day is spent at the CGA Golf Range as well as an hour at the gym.

“From a professional point of view, Jeev is a great player to watch, specially for the mental strength he has built up for the game,” says Brandon de Souza, former golf professional and managing director of Tiger Sports Marketing.

This sense of discipline and hard work was instilled in him by his father, his mentor. “I have shared a very good relationship with my parents and after I turned 13, my dad treated me like a friend,” says Jeev.

Even as a teenager, Jeev always followed a tough training schedule, especially when he took to the game seriously.

De Souza adds that a lot of credit for Jeev’s success goes to his father: “Milkha Singh set up a putting range in their garden so that his son could practise.”

Jeev says that he was introduced to the game by his father who played golf and since they lived quite close to the golf range he would cycle to the golf course after school.

But the deciding year of Jeev’s life was in 1993 when he went to the US on a golf scholarship. He had just won the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division II individual golf championship, which gave him the confidence to turn pro. Jeev’s parents were very supportive.

Kudrat, Jeev’s childhood sweetheart (and neighbour), and now wife, has grown up seeing Jeev sweating it out for the game even as a teenager. While other children of his age would party and play till late, Kudrat would often spot Jeev practising his shots into the night and sometimes even in the wee hours of morning.

The youngest of four children, Jeev has three older sisters — Aleeza, Mona and Sonia — two of whom are settled in the US while another is in Delhi. Sonia says: “He is very grounded and humble — a trait which he has acquired from our father. The more he has grown in stature, the more humble he has become,” says Sonia.

According to Kudrat, it’s Jeev’s attitude towards life that is reflected in his game. “As an individual, Jeev strives for perfection in his life. It is the same for the game as well,” says Kudrat.

Narain says that Jeev has a reached level which leaves no scope for weaknesses. “His strong points as a golfer are that he is a long hitter and a good driver of the ball,” says Narain.

But being a golfer is not an easy job. Being on and off the field for long hours can take a toll on one’s mind and body and Jeev likes to unwind by watching movies on his laptop and DVD player. And these gadgets have now become indispensable and go with him everywhere.

Kudrat accompanies him on his tours, and Jeev admits that life has changed for the better ever since he got married. He says: “It is a very lonely life as a professional and you can’t share your thoughts with anybody else except someone very close to you.”

While on the circuit, Jeev says that a golfer doesn’t get much time to socialise. However, he says that he tries to catch up with other golfers including Shiv Kapur and S.S.P Chowrasia over dinner.

During the rare breaks back home Jeev says that he simply relaxes and does “nothing’’ but savours Indian food.

The movie buff confesses that he has no interest in other sports. “For instance, I’m clueless about what’s happening in the cricketing world,” he chuckles. The golfer blames this on the fact that he plays professional golf for 34 weeks a year apart from practice sessions.

“Had I not been a golfer, I really don’t know what I would have done,” laughs Jeev who also received India’s fourth highest civil honour, the Padma Shri, in 2007.

Besides his game, Jeev has something else on his mind. He is concerned about recession hitting golf and is worried about players losing games and sponsors not renewing the contracts. “It is a very tough time right now. But if we survive 2010 then I think we will do well,” he says hopefully.

But for now, Jeev knows what lies ahead for him. Even as he chases his American Dream, he knows that he wants to continue playing in Europe, Japan and a little in Asia. “I feel I’ve got 12 more years in me,” he says.

He expects to last till 50 and hopes to win the US major one day before he retires from professional golf. “I’ll keep trying and if it happens, I will be happy. But if I don’t, at least I’ll know that I tried,” he says.