By Hita Prakash
Smriti Mehra is a pioneering woman golfer in India. Simi, as she is fondly known, is not afraid to break barriers and stereotypes, personally and professionally. “I have been doing that right from the beginning,” she tells NSoJ. A two-part interview.
Q: How can you relate golf to life?
A: Golf, the sport is the closest to life. I feel people who play it diligently, relate to this. They are going to have some bad, but also a few great breaks in life, such is the same in golf. You are going to be thrown some bad weather, not the best conditions on the course and the day you can pull it through and be your best, you will win, golf or life.
Q: Golf has a very corporate image. How can we change this?
A: Why would I want to change anything? Golf has a corporate image in India because it has been marketed that way, for the rich and famous. If you look at the competitive golfers who came before me, like Basad Ali, Rohtas Singh, and Ali Sher, none of them were from corporate sector. They all came from completely different backgrounds and made a really good living for themselves. Today we have the likes of Shubham Jaglan, Rashid Khan who are from rural backgrounds.
Q: Is women’s golf taken as seriously as the men’s in India?
A: Forget sport. Let’s talk about women in general. In most families, women are treated differently, so young boys grow up not knowing how to treat women with respect. That is what they learn, it’s a little bit like a Stockholm syndrome. I come from a very different family -- my parents considered each other equals. My father treated my mother like she was the Queen of England, my brother treats his wife the same way and I believe that I am the Queen of England and men should treat me likewise! So, when I see women being abused, I wonder: ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourselves?’ The biggest issue we have in India is that girls’ education is not taken seriously. Similar is the case for women’s sport. In golf, there is neither pay parity nor is it taken as seriously as the men’s game.
Q: As a co-founder of the Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI), do you see a significant rise in the number of players today?
A: Absolutely. When I started WGAI, with Mrs. Champika Nanda Sayal, in 2006-07, there were eight girls in the entire country under the age of 18, playing the sport. Today, that number is nearly 800. Now girls realise golf can be a profession. Creating a platform for them was the crucial aspect. I used to travel between India and the US, during those early years, to play the pro events here. That helped the sport grow as we did not have a pool of amateurs to turn professional. The first year we had four professionals compared to 30 plus now. It has not been easy; journalists told me I started the pro tour for my personal gain. The truth is my US flight tickets cost more than my tour winnings here! But doing this has helped me understand what difficulties girls in India go through.
Q: Your advice for the young generation of today?
A: My advice to the young generation today is, find someone to talk to. Not on the phone but face to face. Remember, everybody has problems. Research it, talk to your friends who may have solutions. Know that all problems can be resolved, it becomes big when you have nobody to talk to. Talk to somebody, anybody. Call me. You need someone to be direct, I have a few students in Kolkata and I don't tell them what to do but that there will be consequences for the kind of choices each one of us makes. It is okay to make bad choices, you learn from them; don't repeat a mistake, make new ones.
Q: How can we make golf more accessible in smaller towns?
A: First of all, we need land. Playing golf has to become cheaper. Senior golfers should get more involved and help by donating their old sets. The First Tee program in the US, for example, teaches kids from under-privileged backgrounds golf for free. Just the way we have for cricket here, more children playing builds the sport.
(In part two of the interview, we asked her about Golf, her personal choices and more).