Towards the end of the final round of the PGTI Players Championship in Chandigarh last week, Karandeep Kochhar came under unexpected pressure. He had led the field from the start and had gone into the final round with a four-shot lead. However, a course record 10-under from Sunit Chowrasia had complicated things even as Kochhar still had another three holes to play.
For the 21-year-old Kochhar, this scenario had the potential of becoming another case of almost there. There was little doubt of the fact that he's one of the brightest prospects of Indian golf. That's been the case since 2016, when as a 17-year-old, he became the youngest Indian and the only amateur to win a PGTI event by winning the PGTI Players Championship at the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata. Since then, he'd never won a PGTI title as a professional.
Through it all, he'd always ploughed on, keeping close to heart a piece of advice he'd received from a member of his family, shortly after his triumph in Kolkata. And while there's something to be said about family tips, there was plenty of authority behind this particular suggestion. It came from Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra after all - or as Kochhar calls him - maamu.
"He (Bindra) is my mother's cousin. I've always called him maamu (uncle). I don't meet him that often. He has a busy schedule. But if I have something bothering me, I always drop him a text or something. I'd spoken to him when I first won the tour title three years back. Rifle shooting and golf are two very different sports but one thing they have in common is how calm you need to be. So he advised me on how to stay calm," says Kochhar.
There wouldn't be any hiccups for Kochhar in Chandigarh as he hit birdies on two of his final three holes to claim the win. "I was calm towards the end. I knew I had to birdie a hole in the last three holes. But even I was surprised at how calm I was. And that's the reason I think I won. I was able to stay calm and controlled," he says.
That hadn't been the case for the past three years. It wasn't that he hadn't come close. He was leading last December at the Bengaluru Open by two strokes going into the final round before dropping four shots on the front nine. A year earlier, he was leading by two strokes with just eight holes to go, before making three bogeys in four holes to be forced into a playoff, which he lost.
All those nerves contrasted with the ease with which he had won the PGTI Players Championships in Tollegunge. "The week I won in Tollygunge, I was not under any pressure. I was just this 17-year-old kid competing in the amateur event and ended up winning the entire thing. But the win put pressure on me. I had a lot more expectations on me after that. The first couple of pro tournaments I played after that were difficult. I had put more expectations on myself because I had just won. I wasn't very comfortable. I was thinking too much rather than playing my own game," he says.
While the early success might have forced him to deal with more pressure than he expected, it also served as the tipping point in choosing golf as a career. He'd started playing as a three year old, after his grandfather had bought him a set of miniature clubs. Success had come early as well. " I'd done well in all the age group tournaments but I wasn't really very serious about golf as a career. I wasn't completely focused or willing to work hard until I won that first title. After that, I knew that I needed to be serious about what I was doing," he says.
The decision to focus solely on his sporting career has meant that Kochhar, unlike many young Indian golfers, chose not to pursue a collegiate break in the USA despite getting multiple college scholarships. "If I'd done that, I'd probably lose three years of competition. That's not something I want to risk. The fact that I've put in all the hard yards over the past couple of seasons means I'm getting closer to winning tournaments more consistently," he says.
While he's slowly making a mark himself, Kochhar is not hesitant in learning from others. He has no shortage of sportspersons to be inspired by too. Two-time European Tour winner Shubhankar Sharma is someone he's looked up to. "Shubhankar is 3 years older than me but a good friend. He lives about two minutes from my home in Chandigarh, so I hang out with him quite often. At the same time, I also get to learn a lot from his mindset, which is one of the best in the world. He has so much experience and tells me about all the courses he's played on and players he's competed against and that inspires me to push harder myself," he says.
Few role models though can match the stature of Bindra. One of Kochhar's most enduring childhood memories is of Bindra visiting his relatives after he returned to India following his triumph in Beijing. "That 2008 moment was a huge moment for me too. I remember when he won and there was this big celebration at his house where we had all gone. I remember seeing his gold medal had been framed and mounted. It was such a big thing to be able to see it in person," he says.
Like Bindra, Kochhar has his own Olympic dreams too. As per the Olympic qualification system, the two highest ranked Indians in the men's world rankings are likely to make the 60 who will compete in Tokyo next year.
Although Kochhar, at WR 435, is currently the 5th highest ranked Indian in the global rankings (behind Rashid Khan (262), Udayan Mane (278), Shubhankar Sharma (347) and Shiv Kapur (422), he's the only one who has been rising up the chart on the basis of his recent finishes. Should he perform well at the Jeev Milkha invitational, to be held in December - an event he's finished 3rd and 2nd in over the last couple of years - he's likely to improve his ranking even further.
That's what Kochhar is hoping for as well. "Right now I'm accumulating a lot of points. So if I continue to do well, I might just be in the race to qualify for the Olympics next year. I don't know if it will happen but it's something I'm keeping an eye out from. I've first hand seen how special the Olympics are. It would be special to make it there myself," he says.