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Jeev: Master of the milestones

Some athletes take the small steps that enable others to take giant leaps later, writes Rohit Brijnath

One morning soon, his nervous knees clacking like knitting needles, he will glide down a lane in Augusta, Georgia and into an arena where history walks but none of his kind ever has.

Into this golfing cathedral, where the azaleas sit like beautiful mute spectators, there he'll come, carrying his golf swing of unkind architecture and his polished manners, the first Indian to play in the US Masters golf.

"First Indian'' sits on Jeev Milkha Singh like a title, it's a phrase that's turned into his calling card.

Like first Indian on the Japanese tour. First Indian on the European tour.

First Indian to win on European soil. First Indian to play US Open. First Indian to play World matchplay. First Indian to reach the world top 50.

`First Indian'

This "first Indian" stuff, it matters. One day, an Indian will win a major golf title, a Wimbledon crown, Olympic gold. And it'll happen because someone before them hacked out part of the road forward, suggested it could be done, kicked down many of the psychological barriers. Jeev is laying the signposts for a generation he doesn't even know.

Jeev will step carefully at the Masters because his body will feel the tremble that naturally comes from first inhaling the air at hallowed grounds. For all the flintiness of sport, there thankfully remains an element of boyish awe to it.

Like kids imagining their straight drive on a Mumbai lane is a boundary struck at Lord's, Jeev can remember being a kid at Chandigarh Golf Club and exclaiming: "This shot is to win the Masters'', and his caddie laughing: "What are you saying''.

With no live golf then, he recalls waiting for more than a month, and then finally they arrived, the videotapes of the Masters. "I remember it very well, I knew the Masters as the tournament, I remember the green jacket (traditionally handed from reigning champion to new champion)''. His senses soaked it in, his dreams built.

Invitation

Now he's got an invitation to attend, a card so precious he says "I'm going to frame it''. Now he's almost there at a tournament which is considered, with the British Open, the most significant event in the sport, at a club so particular about its image that a commentator was reportedly removed for referring to the crowd as a "mob'' (the acceptable word is "patrons'').

Life is gently altering for Jeev. He's playing in elite fields. He has strangers accosting him in airport lounges in America requesting autographs.

He has Tiger Woods greeting him two weeks ago, saying: "Good to see you in the top 50''.

He will not win the Masters. Debutants don't. Neither has his form been strong lately. Partly because having traversed the Japanese, Asian and European tours his high ranking has brought him to America, where the talent is thickest and the type of golf played is different, and only time will bring comfort.

Old foe

And partly because he's struggling with an old foe, the mind. "Every golfer,'' he says "has his way of hitting a good shot, how he does it only he knows'', what rituals he follows are personal to him. It's what the golfer must constantly focus on, if he lets the mind wander from process to result, he falters.

But then this is not about winning. It's about seeing an Indian on the first tee and hearing the starter call the name "Singh'' and spectators looking up to find it's not Vijay. It's about pride, and it's about goals reached. And it's about the future. Some athletes take the small steps that enable others to take giant leaps later.

Jeev likes "taking the game forward''. He wants, he says, young Indian golfers to believe they can do what he has.

He pauses. Then rephrases.

"No, young guys should actually think `I'm better than Jeev'. It's the only way to go."

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