The warmth and the humility comes through on the phone line on a wintry November morning, even though Jeev Milkha Singh must have handled scores of calls in the past few weeks that have seen him give Indian sports fans something to cheer about. He first collected the biggest pay cheque for an Indian sportsperson — 666,660 euros (Rs 3.84 crore) – for a fabulous win in the Volvo Masters at Valderrama, Spain. And, capped that by winning the 2006 Asian Order of Merit last week with a total prize money of $ 573,442. He became the third Indian after Jyoti Randhawa (2002) and Arjun Atwal (2003) to bag the prize.
He had taken a day off when I caught up with him over the ‘phone. It was amply evident that the man had not changed one bit. But of course, the golfer in him had changed his approach and attitude with tremendous effect. For seven years after winning the Lexus International tournament on the Asian Tour in Bangkok, Jeev lived out of a suitcase, moving from one golf event to another, from dreams to nightmares and back but always with hope in his heart and confidence in his abilities. Yet, he was constantly losing his claim for titles after playing himself into winning positions
His victory in the China Open in April was worth $300,000 and his shared third place finish last week in the Hong Kong Open $ 103,333. Together, these two events contributed a bulk of his collection on the Asian Tour where he had five top-10 finishes. Of course, he also won 53,579,411 Yen on the Japan Tour where he had ten top-10 finishes this year and is 15th on the prize money list. And, on the European Tour, he has won a whopping 857,260 euros from eight events to be 16th on the list there. Not a bad show for someone who has played 37 weeks of competitive golf this year.
He did not have a great start to the year. In fact, the run up to his victory in Volvo China Open wasn’t good at all. He had missed the cut in Perth and Kuala Lumpur in February, finished 40th in Jakarta and missed the cut at the Singapore Masters. His earnings from the Asian Tour during this period were a mere $5700.
“I continued to work hard at my game. I realised that I was becoming too result-oriented and needed to keep my focus on the process,” Jeev said, sounding quite like a top brass from the Indian cricket team which has been trying hard to impress the Indian sporting fraternity that the process was more important than immediate results. “I changed a few things like my posture and swing and knew I was on the right track in concentrating on the basics and getting them right every single time. I spent time internalising and even though at first it was not a happy journey, I realised that the process of self-discovery was great.
“I asked myself tough questions and learnt from my own mistakes,” Jeev said. “On many occasions, I had been getting pretty close (to winning), but was missing out. I was trying my hardest, and playing pretty well, but I knew something was missing. I kept thinking about it and realised I had become too result-oriented. My mind went back to the time in December 2004 when I let go of a four-stroke lead in the Asia Japan Okinawa Open because I was constantly looking at the leaderboard. Instead of focussing on getting my routine right, I was thinking about the result and trying too hard to win, which meant I was just putting pressure on myself.”
On April 16, he started the final round in the China Open one stroke behind the overnight leader David Lynn (England). He recalls that he decided not to look at the leaderboard and to focus on playing as well as he could. “I believed I could win the title but I told myself ‘Jeev, it’s okay if you don’t win the tournament. You can go on and play another week elsewhere’, I played well under pressure and secured the win to end a seven-year drought.”
Jeev is candid when talking about his conquest of the Volvo Masters at Valderrama in Spain, the biggest of his seven wins as a professional golfer. “More than the prize money (€ 666,660) that I won there, the victory opened a lot of doors for me, getting me a five-year exemption on the European Tour and some invites to play on the (American) PGA next year,” he said.
“I have many things lined up over the next few weeks,” Jeev said, pointing out that his focus now is on improving his ranking with a string of consistent performances. “I am playing the next two weeks, have a week off before the Volvo Masters of Asia in Bangkok. I am planning to spend three weeks at home but before I hit the road again in January, I want to make it to the top 50 in the World Golf Rankings so that I am assured of a start in the US Masters in April.” Now ranked 63 in world, Jeev will gain an exemption into the WGC-Accenture Match Play next year if he maintains his position inside the top-64.
He will also remind himself to take care not to let an old wrist injury recur. A week after winning the Volvo Masters in Valderrama, Spain, he was in with a chance to winning again in Fukoaka. But he quite forgot that he was not supposed to challenge his wrist during uphill putts (as a result of an injury sustained some years ago). “I had a lead in the Asahiryokuken Yomiuri Memorial 2006 and on the final hole I tried to sink a 20-foot uphill putt for a birdie that would have given me my first win on the Japan Tour. It was about management and I didn’t do it too well by trying too hard and causing my wrist to hurt. I ended up three-putting that hole to finish second.”
For a man who will turn 35 on Decermber 15, his quest for new frontiers is boundless. He continues raise the bar for himself – and his peers – and you can be sure that this genial golfer will punctuate his pursuit of excellence with his sharp focus on the process rather than become result-oriented all over again.