- Associated Press - Thursday, August 18, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - Her father stood by the golf bag and held back tears when Aditi Ashok teed off in the Olympics. Better yet was watching the 18-year-old from India walk off the 18th green Thursday with another 68 and see her name high on the leaderboard.

“I didn’t expect to be there,” said Ashok, four shots behind Inbee Park through 36 holes. “I just tried to follow my game plan and do my best every day. And now I’m up there, so I’m really looking forward to the weekend.”

And to think none of this would be possible if they had chosen somewhere else to eat breakfast long ago.

Ashok, a single child with an inquisitive mind, was 5 when she went with her parents to a restaurant across from the Karnataka Golf Association course in Bangalore. The family knew nothing about golf.

“We were just having breakfast and we looked at the driving range where people are hitting balls,” Gudlamani Ashok said. “We were very intrigued and just walked in. We just wanted to get some family activity, so we all learned. I saw her interest growing and when she played her first round - 18 holes from normal tees - I could see red cheeks. But then she said, ‘I want to go back.’

“I felt she’s very, very passionate about the sport, and she took it on from there.”

Ashok is emerging on her biggest stage yet in women’s golf. The youngest player in the field, she qualified through the women’s world ranking at No. 462 in the world, and her appearance was seen mainly as chance to spark interest in golf in India.

Jeev Milkha Singh, Arjun Atwal and Anirban Lahiri have earned attention over the last decade in men’s golf, from victories on the European Tour or PGA Tour. Lahiri, who also grew up in Bangalore, tied for fifth in the PGA Championship last year and was the first to play in the Presidents Cup.

Ashok’s hopes are to inspire the women, and she can only imagine what a medal would mean to her country.

“I think it would be big in India, and also being a golfer - a woman golfer - it will definitely boost the popularity of the sport. That’s what I’m hoping to do,” Ashok said. “Because golf is in the Olympics for the first time, I think it would make golf more public among the general people who watch golf, not just the golf fans who watch it right now. … We still need to have a lot more golf courses and a lot more juniors playing the sport. I’m hoping that happens soon.”

For now, she has four shots to make up against a seven-time major champion, and she is trying to temper expectations.

Even with such a low world ranking, Ashok was not a complete unknown when she arrived at Olympic Golf Course. She has been winning junior titles, competed in the Youth Olympics and last year became the youngest player - and first from India - to win qualifying school for the Ladies European Tour. She was 17 and shot 23-under par.

And like her father detected, she is passionate about her sport.

“I think golf every day is different,” she said. “You never hit the same shot twice. So every day is a new experience, and you can’t really come with any expectations. The game is bigger than all of us, so that’s what I like about it.”

Her next stop no matter how the Olympics end for her is a trip to California for the first stage of LPGA qualifying. She was too young to go last year. Her father, who caddies for her, is along for a ride he never imagined. And the opening tee shot was a moment he won’t forget.

“I was almost in tears,” he said. “I thanked her for this opportunity to be on her bag. Because as kids, we all dream. When we play when we are 10, 12 years old, we used to think that one day we will be Olympians. I don’t think I can do that. But she brought me to the Olympics.”

In golf, of all sports.

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