Rookie Ashok, India's lone rep, looking to gain force on tour

kholtzman@dailypress.com
Sarah Jane Smith headlines three Aussies who finished the first round at Kingsmill in top 10

A segment of Aditi Ashok's Twitter bio reads simply "Olympian."

Enough characters in that social media space do not nearly exist to capture the national pride that Ashok helped spur during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"It was really big," Ashok said Thursday after carding a 1-under par 70 that puts her tied for 34th. "I figured that out when I got there. It was something I've never experienced. It was one of the best weeks of my career so far, to get to represent India, and hopefully I can do that again in Tokyo."

At 18, Ashok was the youngest player in the field in the Olympics, which welcomed golf back for the first time since 1904.

The Bangolore native hopes to become the first Indian player to win an LPGA Tour event and is the only player from the nation of more than 1.3 billion in the Kingsmill field. She was profiled by the New York Times in February and now boasts nearly 19,000 Twitter followers. For some perspective, the other two members of her group — England's Bronte Law and U.Va. alumna Brittany Altomare — have 2,301 combined.

Ashok's global ranking of 102 is the highest for an Indian woman since Simi Mehra, who reached as high as 17 in the late 1990s.

"It's good to be one of the only few," Ashok said. "Hopefully there will be a lot more girls from India picking up golf and hopefully playing on the LPGA. With every performance, I hope I can just inspire more girls back home."

In Rio, Ashok finished 41st, only months after turning professional, and followed up the Olympics performance in the fall with a pair of Ladies European Tour wins, finishing with seven top 10s to earn top rookie honors.

Ashok was 3-under through 16 holes in her Kingsmill debut Thursday before bogeying holes 17 and 18. She birdied 1, 6 and 7 and saved par everywhere else.

Those bogeys aren't likely to cause Ashok to lose much sleep, according to her caddy, Mikey Curry of England. Curry had two years of Ladies European Tour experience before arriving in America to make his LPGA debut only a week ago.

"She's just so mature for somebody her age," Curry said. "She doesn't get flustered like a lot of young girls do. She keeps calm when things are going well or badly. She's just very mature. She handles herself, her emotions, very well."

Ashok's parents are usually by her side on the LPGA Tour, where she is hoping to gain some momentum. Her best finish this season is a tie for 42nd at California's ANA Inspiration in March.

An only child, she learned the game at the age of 5-years-old from her parents, who were just learning themselves. Her father, Pandit Gudlamani Ashok, has even caddied for her, including at the Olympics.

"I'm still a rookie and just 19, trying to do better than most other rookies out here," Aditi Ashok said. "I'm just trying to do my best each week. Eventually if I do well, my country also gets the credit."

'Go Aussie'

The Australian contingent deserves some credit, too. Three Aussies finished in the top 10 Thursday, led by tour veteran Sarah Jane Smith (-4, T5).

Minjee Lee, the 2015 Kingsmill champion, and second-year LPGA Tour player Su Oh each are tied for eighth.

Smith said the Australian crew is fairly tight-knit, led by the venerable Karrie Webb, who has taken it upon herself to draw her countrywomen under her wing.

After learning three of them were likely to be in the top 10 after day one, Smith said, "Oh, nice. Go Aussie."

Fast and firm

Tournament director Matthew Schulze said the word on tour is Kingsmill's greens are as good as anyone has ever seen.

Good means the right balance between firm, fast and fair.

"We like to see the golf course win," Schulze said. "The tour kind of wants to see the players win and be entertaining. It's not the U.S. Open, we don't want them to shoot 1 over. We want to see a lot of birdies and eagles and people having fun watching golf. But we want it to be a good test."

American Amelia Lewis, tied for eighth, got a good feel for how much firmer the greens are this year on her final hole on 18 when she struck a good approach shot within several feet of the hole that still pinged away to the fringe before the Jacksonville, Fla. native chipped and saved par with a 10-foot putt.

"Normally they have a lot of rain and you can just stick your shots," Lewis said, "but now you really have to play for some release and roll. And the greens are firmer and faster, so it's a good challenge."

The most intriguing challenge could come on moving day Saturday on 18 (382 yards), when the hole may be converted to a drive-able par 4, a first for the LPGA at Kingsmill. Schulze said that was the plan last year before rain dampened the idea.

Flying high

Lexi Thompson led the field with seven birdies in the first round, followed by Gerina Piller, Angel Yin, Sadena Parks and Madelene Sagstrom with six each.

Three players carded eagles on Thursday: Brooke Henderson (No. 15), Celine Herbin (No. 3) and Ally McDonald (No. 7).

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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