When he is referred to as a 38-year-old, Jeev Milkha Singh says he is 39. When told again that he is 38, he stops eating his lunch—oriental curry and rice in the clubhouse of the Amata Spring Country Club near Bangkok—and calculates. He was born 15 December 1971. This is January 2010. “You are right,” he says. “I’m 38.” Smiling comes easily to Jeev and he smiles now. Crow’s feet appear at the corners of his deep set narrow eyes.
How often does someone think he is older than he really is? But Jeev is different. For an Indian, he chose an odd sport. Ever more odd when you consider he is the son of a runner. Milkha Singh’s 400m races would be over in about 46 seconds. Jeev goes out to play in the morning and returns early evening. Milkha Singh did his job in a vest and shorts. Jeev does his in ironed T-shirt and trousers. Milkha was the Flying Sikh, Jeev is the Teeing Sikh.
Father and son are similar, though, in the success they achieved in their careers. If Milkha was the 400m national record holder, Jeev has won 19 titles, including the prestigious Volvo Masters at the famous Valderrama course in 2006. He was ranked 33rd in the world last January. He has earned six million dollars in prize money. Milkha Singh won the Padma Shri in 1959. In 2007, Jeev got his.
I spoke with Jeev on the second day of the recently held Royal Trophy in Bangkok, a Ryder Cup style tournament between Asia and Europe. Asia had taken the first day. But on the second, Europe had roared back. Jeev and his partner, Gaganjeet Bhullar, had been destroyed by Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie and the UK’s Simon Dyson. Yet, when Jeev strode back into the Mediterranean-style clubhouse of the Amata Club, he was composed. And hungry. When hungry, you bend towards the food more than you lift the food towards you. That is how Jeev ate in the lunch room, a dark and cool contrast to the harsh sun. He had dessert too. A small cup of Haagen Dazs Belgian chocolate ice cream.
“Is it allowed?” I asked him.
“Yes. My sugar level is low, so I’m going to have some ice cream now,” he said, looking amused by the question. (Professional golfers hit about 70 shots over 18 holes. They walk around 7 km, often under a scorching sun. Sugar levels do drop).
Jeev said 2009 was an ordinary year for him. “The main thing that set me back was injury. I tore my intercostal muscle (which is located in the rib area). I was out for three months.”
It caused his ranking to dip. Currently he is No 55 in the world, but is feeling good about his game again. The year looks as inviting to him as the chocolate ice cream. On the personal front as well. Jeev and his wife, Kudrat, are expecting their first child soon. (Kudrat suffered a miscarriage in 2008. Just about a week after the trauma, Jeev won the Nippon Series JT Cup in Japan.)
“I am going to play 20-25 events on the US PGA tour and win one,” Jeev says. “My aim is to reach the top-30 at the end of the year.” Beyond that, his aim is the ultimate prize—a major title. Like tennis, golf has four majors. Jeev wants at least one. He seems to take inspiration from Korea’s YE Yang, who sensationally defeated Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship last year to become the first Asian-born male to win a major.
“Yang winning a major was a great example of Asian golfers coming of age,” Jeev said when asked if there were things players from the continent traditionally did well and did not do so well. “There is no real difference (between Asians and Westerners). Not in this day and age. They (Asians) know the standards. They play co-sanctioned events with Europe. The Asian Tour guys have a lot of confidence. In India too, the future is bright, thanks to players like Gagan (Bhullar), Shiv Kapur, Rahil Gangjee and Anirban Lahiri.”
Jeev’s English accent is part American, part Punjabi. He pronounces ‘Gaganjeet Bhullar’ as ‘Gaganjeet Bhullurr’, and ‘weight’ as ‘wade’. Then he says, “Everyone comes out to s-port us,” meaning ‘support’.
To understand Jeev more, we must try to understand golf better. It is the most distinct of all outdoor sports. The playing dimensions are huge. The landscape and background changes all the time, as if the golfers were shooting a Hindi film song sequence. They are sometimes blasting off from the tee square or chipping out of white sand bunkers, which appear like patches of Malibu that have mysteriously appeared on an English meadow. At times, the golfers are beside a tranquil lake, rolling a deceptively simple putt. Sometimes they are on the lake. To be specific, on a floating island green. On the Amata course, the eighth hole was in a floating island green. The golfers travelled to it in a small boat. Imagine Tendulkar playing a delivery and then taking a boat to an island for the next.
Golf is also one sport where the proximity of spectators to the players varies. Sometimes there is distance between them, otherwise hardly any. On occasion, you can be right behind the golfer, especially when he drives. This is a vantage point from where you can appreciate the power of a drive and the spectacular flight of a golf ball, which television can never capture. The sound the golf club makes while hitting the ball is like a half-boiled egg being sliced open with a spoon, only louder. The trajectory of the ball is initially flat, ultimately soaring.
Nothing in sport travels as far as a golf ball. Top golfers hit in the region of 300 yards. Yuvraj Singh’s famous six off Brett Lee, rated among the longest ever, was 130 yards. Jan Zelezny’s javelin world record is about 107.7 yards. Even Mickey Mantle’s famous ‘longest home run ever’ in baseball falls short at 215 yards. A 300-yard golf drive would clear three football grounds, which are 100 to 130 yards long (the dimensions of a football pitch are allowed to vary).
While golfers pride themselves on how far they can hit, there is such a thing as too far or too high. When one of his drives threatened to overshoot, Colin Montgomerie, eyes following the path of the ball, urged it to “come down”. “She will,” someone in the crowd said.
Watching golf too is different from watching other sports. You are not in one place. There is the option of staying put at a hole and watching successive golfers. But many choose a golfer and follow him around the course. The result is an acoustic sequence. The march of several pairs of feet on the walking path, following the golfer. Then silence as the golfer takes his shot. This is followed by a collective, admiring “oooh” or a low-pitched “ohhhh”, depending upon the quality of the shot. Then, the shuffling of feet again.
At all times when the player takes the shot there has to be silence. Volunteers cannot even say “quiet please”. Instead, they hold up placards. Then, when it becomes so quiet that Manmohan Singh would be audible, the player takes his shot. The hole, which is somewhere there waiting, assumes the glory of a worthy goal. But once it has been played, everyone leaves without so much as a glance back. The territory becomes open to mortals. At the Amata, after a tee-off, a stocky kid laughed and swung mock drives with the same ‘quiet please’ sign that he sternly held up moments ago.
Golf is also perhaps the only major sport where the umpire is spared the hassle of ensuring that players behave. There are no fouls or tackles, no sledging. Nor are there too many controversial decisions. In fact, golfers must be the only competitors who, smack in the middle of a contest, discuss the game with their opponent. Imagine Mike Tyson missing a punch against Evander Holyfield and then chummily saying to him, “Aimed a little too much to the left, did I?”
Like all golfers, Jeev has a routine before he tees off. He takes a practice swing, the club whooshing through the air. Then he steps a few feet behind the ball and looks straight ahead, like a pilot might at the runaway just before take-off. The shot planned, he steps forward and whacks the drive. Those watching at the other end hear a distant ‘ping’ and concentrate on the area in front of them. A white ball suddenly materialises with a ‘plop’. Jeev then walks for his next shot, in shoes that are customised because his right foot has no arch. From his left pocket, fingers of a white glove hang out. They look like the hand of a small creature trying to escape from the pocket.
Back in the dining room, Jeev expresses satisfaction over his career. “It took me time, but I’m pretty happy at the way things have come about,” he says. “I had to work on my discipline. In my younger days I would be tempted to slack out. But my father would remind me to work hard. I learnt it myself too. Your game suffers unless you work on it every day.”
As its frontman, Jeev has ambitions for Indian golf. He reiterates what everyone in the Indian golf fraternity boasts—that golf is the fastest growing sport in the country. The basis of this claim is the Rs 10-crore domestic circuit. No sport other than cricket offers as much money domestically.“Many are taking to the sport, but we need more public driving ranges,” Jeev says. “There are about 16,000 golf courses in the US. Off these 12,000 are public. There are 250 golf courses in India, almost all of them are private.” (Ironically, Jeev himself is commercially associated with a private club—Kensville Golf Living near Ahmedabad). He says the Government could provide land for a public course.
Jeev has almost half a dozen blue chip sponsors, including Rolex. But he doesn’t have an endorsement from a major Indian consumer goods company. He does not allow this to perturb him, only saying, “Corporates could do more.” He bears no grudge towards cricketers, who within a few seasons of playing for India have companies lining up at their door. “Cricket is way above all sports in India. Good for them.”
He talks about living with Milkha Singh. Do their personalities differ as much as their sports? “Not really,” Jeev says. “I disagree with him on a few things, but that’s because of a generation gap.” When I quiz him about Milkha’s 400m record time, he provides the right answer (45.6 seconds as calculated manually). But he does not remember the first time he saw footage of the 1960 Rome Olympics, where Milkha Singh finished fourth in the 400m final. “I have seen it so many times that I don’t remember the first occasion,” Jeev says.
He enjoys watching films. “I like Harrison Ford and loved Fugitive. Aamir Khan and Rakeysh Mehra make good movies. Rang de Basanti had a good message for young people.”
From his wins he likes to keep framed photos of a hole on the course. I then ask him about his salt and pepper goatee, which looks as if his chin has been rested in an ashtray full of ash.
“I’ve kept it for years and am sticking to it,” he says.
Not tempted to dye it?
“No. I want to age gracefully.”