Name six sportspersons from Kolkata who have lit up the world stage in their respective arenas. Leslie Claudius, Gurbux Singh, Pankaj Roy, Sourav Ganguly, Simi Mehra….
Smriti “Simi” Mehra — the first Indian to ever play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour — is a woman of many firsts. Besides two wins on the Futures Tour and victory at the 2002 Malaysian Open, Simi was the first Indian to play in the US Open as well as in the US Senior Open. In 1998, she achieved the best finish (fourth) ever secured by an Indian at the British Open. During the early 2000s, she was also the second longest hitter of a golf ball in the world. For many of her male peers, she is “the most talented golfer” India has ever produced.
And now, at 50, Simi is teeing off her second innings with Legends of the LPGA, the official senior tour of the LPGA.
Reason enough for My Kolkata to catch up with Simi to discuss her golfing genesis, the players who have inspired her, her return to action and more. Edited excerpts from the conversation — that took place at her good friend Gaurav Ghosh’s house — follow.
‘In a swimsuit and a towel, I hit a golf ball for the first time!’
My Kolkata: How did you take to golf? Was your mother, Billy Mehra (an amateur golfer herself), the initial inspiration?
Simi Mehra: As a kid, I was a swimmer, and I loved the water. My coach at the time used to tie my ankles for the butterfly stroke, to ensure that I’d get my kicks right. But I used to think he’s only doing it because I’m a girl. Since the rest of the butterfly swimmers were all boys. One day, I decided I had had enough. I got up from the pool and with my swimsuit on and tears streaming down my face, I tied a towel around my waist and went to complain to my mother, who was driving at the range in Tollygunge Club. She consoled me but asked me not to cry. That’s when I told her that I’d like to play golf. So, in a swimsuit and a towel, I hit a golf ball for the first time! I was around 10 or 11. I was hooked. I was even more hooked because, back then, at the Calcutta Ladies Golf Club, they used to have an event sponsored by Kwality Wall’s. Junior winners would get ice cream and my love for ice cream encouraged me to play even more golf!
Is it true that you struck a deal with your mother during your amateur days that as long as you kept winning every tournament, she would not ask you to get married?
Not quite, it wasn’t about winning amateur tournaments. The bet was that if I get to qualify for the US Tour, then I get to decide who I marry. This was more than three decades ago when the role of women was seen as being mostly towards the family. But my mother never forced me into anything, she wanted me to earn it. Even if I wanted a bicycle, she’d ask me to learn to ride first. When I asked her how I could do that without owning a bicycle, she’d say, “That’s your problem, figure it out”. It was always a learning curve with my mother, which I think is a fabulous way to grow up. It makes you independent and jugaadu.
It also helped me later on in life to think on my feet and be my own guide. I remember getting robbed and losing my passport in Hong Kong as a 17-year-old. But I had seen enough movies by then to know that I had to go to the cops for help. I ended up showing up at the Indian embassy. Fortunately, I had a magazine with my photograph in it as a player. The ambassador was fantastic, and I had my passport made and my visa stamped overnight. I had no money on me, either. So, they gave me 100 dollars to get by!
‘The reason Arjun (Atwal) and I made it to the top from Kolkata was because we had each other’s backs’TT archives
You grew up playing a lot of golf with the likes of Arjun Atwal and Indrajit Bhalotia. What was that like?
They were my only competition. I’d play tournaments with the women but practise almost exclusively with the men. They’d never allow me to play on the ladies’ tees. For the longest time, there were no ladies’ tees. But the competition was hard and healthy. I’m so grateful that they went hard at me. To this day, they constitute my inner circle, who never pander to me but are always there for me when I need them.
‘It’s the course you have to beat, not the person’
Nancy Lopez was one of Mehra’s earliest golfing inspirationsLPGA
Would it be fair to say that Nancy Lopez (from the US) was your greatest golfing role model?
She was certainly one of them. But I’ve been blessed to play with so many others, from Juli Inkster to Laura Davies to so many more. Many of these women have come to India to help women’s golf without anything in return. No man has ever shown up without anything. They want their piece of the pie. But that’s where the women are different. If I need support, they’re there to help me out. I remember Annika Sorenstam giving me a tip at a tournament, and I asked her why she was helping me since I was her competitor. She told me: “We’re playing together. And we’re playing against the golf course. I bring my A-game and so do you. It’s the course you have to beat, not the person.”
Tell us about your time in the US in the mid 1990s, when you were playing numerous events to make it to the LPGA Tour but also spending nights sleeping in your car?
I was travelling upwards of 20,000 miles every year across the US, playing in whichever mini-event I could. My wins on the mini-tour gave me the finances to carry on. I had no official sponsor at the time. I had nobody supporting me except Arvind Khanna (politician, businessman and philanthropist) from Delhi and the Ispahani family from Bangladesh, who’ve been very kind. It was hard at that age for me. Learning how to drive on the other side of the road. Sleeping in my car with a gun for protection. It wasn’t an actual gun, but one of those pellet guns I got from Walmart. It was a way of feeling secure while driving by myself across the US.
‘I felt as if I was always in competition with the men’
‘I got zero recognition or support in India. All this used to bother me at one point, now I just find it funny’LPGA
What do you remember about the day (in 1996) when you realised you had become the first Indian to make it to the LPGA Tour? What did it mean to you?
It meant the world to me. I expected a whole lot from India, but I was extremely disappointed with the response. I got zero recognition or support, not even from the media. In any case, given how the media represented me, I felt as if I was always in competition with the men. And I wasn’t even playing on the men’s tour. The question was always like: “Did Jeev [Milkha Singh] do it first or did Simi do it?” I was in competition with the men when there were no women [playing golf professionally in India]. And now they compare me with youngsters like Aditi Ashok when I’m not even playing actively. All this used to bother me at one point, now I just find it funny.
‘The first time I entered a gym for a proper workout was in 2015 at the age of 43’
Injuries and surgeries have dogged your golfing career. What would you blame that on?
I broke my wrist while playing at an event in Arizona in 2000. I hit a ball from under a tree and my hand got stuck in a root. Right after that, I broke a bone in the palm of my hand; the hamate bone, which is a common injury for baseball players. I’ve had seven surgeries in total, which has had a lot to do with not knowing anything about gymming. The first time I entered a gym for a proper workout was in 2015 at the age of 43. Now, when I teach kids, my first priority is to tell them how not getting injured is one of the secrets to having a long career. I’m lucky I have a body that heals quickly for me to return to action quite fast. But injuries hurt you, they hurt your confidence. It’s like a hole in a bag that keeps leaking.
In all these years of playing on the LPGA Tour, what has been your proudest moment?
In 1998, I came close to winning the British Open. I finished fourth. My whole family was there. I remember walking down the 18th hole and there were close to 25,000 whites giving me a standing ovation with the Indian flag flying behind. And I just went: “Wow”. That meant a whole lot to me.
‘The country needs to figure out a way to get sportspeople to run sports bodies’
‘Slogans like Khelo India and Yoga Day mean nothing. What we need is a secure India first. We need athletes to be secure’LPGA
How was your experience of representing India at the Women’s World Cup of Golf in 2008?
We were sent to the World Cup, but we weren’t really sent as a team. We didn’t feel like we were representing our country. I didn’t even know where I was supposed to put my Indian flag. We were just given a bit of this and a bit of that and had to get the rest done by ourselves. At the end of the day, it all comes down to sports in India not being run by sportspeople. The country needs to figure out a way to get sportspeople to run sports bodies. You won’t have politicians running hospitals, would you? Slogans like Khelo India and Yoga Day mean nothing. What we need is a secure India first. We need athletes to be secure.
You co-founded the Women’s Golf Association of India in 2007. What does it need to do today to help more women take up the sport and improve the condition of female golfers?
For more women to take up the sport, the government needs to get involved. We need more land for proper golf courses. We need more spaces that not only allow players to play golf but also teach them this fabulous sport. We need more golfers who’ve actually played the sport to run the Golf Association. Even our rules officials have never played the game, they’ve just written examinations. I set up the Golf Association 15 years ago, but I’ve resigned from the organisation. I did what I could do. It’s time for me to go back and play on the Senior tour.
‘I feel at peace when I'm on a golf course’
‘I want to win the US Senior Open as well as the Senior Open (in the UK) in 2023’LPGA
When are you returning to action? What are the goals or dreams you are still chasing?
Nowadays I feel like I’m more of a person who goes with the flow. My friends, including Mr [Gaurav] Ghosh and Mr Atwal, have made me realise that I’m a very lazy person and that I shouldn’t just wait for my talent to show up. So, after five months of no golf, I’m finally getting my golfing blisters back on my hands. I’m excited to go back and play in the US. I want to win the US Senior Open as well as the Senior Open (in the UK). I want to win every tournament I play. And I’m ready to put in the kind of work required to get that kind of result.
What will be your advice to those who aspire to make golfing history like you?
Remember that even though golf is an independent sport, helping and sharing is key. The reason Arjun and I made it to the top from Kolkata and nobody else emerged in 20 years was because we had each other’s backs. We didn’t have coaches. He learnt golf from his dad and I learnt it from my mom. They weren’t professional golfers but they had professional ethics. Youngsters need to be taken care of, but they also need to take care of each other while pushing each other all the way.
Lastly, looking back, do you have any regrets? If given the chance, would you do anything differently?
I’m a very happy person. I think my mother kicked the sad out of me! So, I don’t have any regrets. And would I do anything differently? No chance. Not even on another planet. I was born to do this. I feel at peace when I’m on a golf course. Just as I do in an ocean. Although I’m not winning anything in the ocean!