By Joy Chakravarty (@TheJoyofGolf)
If Shakespeare was alive and watching Gaganjeet Bhullar woo Fiji, he would have rewritten the climax of Romeo and Juliet. Every great love story deserves an ending that is as happy and rewarding as the one between the Indian ace and the tiny Pacific nation.
The 2018 Fiji International was Bhullar’s first visit to the country. The chemistry between the two was instantaneous and electric. It’s hard not to get enamoured with the beautiful island nation and its rugged landscape. For the Fijians, it was Bhullar’s name and probably, his ethnicity.
Nearly two-fifth of the 850,000 population are of Indian origin, a result of the indenture system that saw the British shipping thousands of them to the islands for sugarcane farming in the late 19th century. That also explains former world No1 and two-time major champion Vijay Singh’s Indian background.
More importantly, it is his family name ‘Bhullar’ that did the trick. ‘Bula’, meaning ‘life’, is the most common greeting in Fiji. That’s how friends, families and guests are welcomed in the native language. That entire week, Bhullar was serenaded with chants of ‘Bula, bula’ on the golf course.
“It was easily the most fun week I have had playing golf. Everyone called me ‘Bula’. So much so that many of my friends on the Tour have now nicknamed me ‘Bula’,” said Bhullar.
Of course, Shakespeare would have also said ‘What’s in a name?’ That week, Bhullar showed he also had the game to go with the name – winning his first title on the European Tour and his Indian-record ninth on the Asian PGA Tour.
Rounds of 70, 69 and 69 had given Bhullar a one-shot advantage over a chasing pack of four players going into the final round at Natadola Bay Golf Club. He was fast off the blocks on Sunday with three birdies in his first four holes. However, heading into the final stretch, he found himself one behind Australia’s Anthony Quayle (63), who had produced a storming finish with two eagles and three birdies on the back nine to set the clubhouse lead at 13-under par.
With two holes left to play, Bhullar was four-under par for the day and one behind Quayle. The 17th at Natadola is a par-5, 549 yards long, and usually plays as the easiest hole in the tournament. The Kapurthala lad was convinced that if he had to win, he needed to make a birdie. The par-4 18th is not the most demanding hole, but a birdie there cannot be taken for granted.
With two good shots, Bhullar was still short of the green. An up-and-down was now mandatory. He walked up the whole of 37 yards to the pin and paid extra attention to every contour that faced his chip shot. With two subtle breaks in the intended path of the shot, it wasn’t going to be easy and demanded utmost craft.
Bhullar settled for a 54-degree wedge. One last look at the line and he let go. The ball flew the first half of its journey, pitched exactly where he intended and took the first break – a left-to-right – about a couple of yards after the first hop. It then rolled another 18-20 feet and took the second break – this one a right-to-left, closer to the hole. As if attracted by a magnet, the ball tracked right into the heart of the cup for an eagle.
“I was one behind, and within a matter of seconds, I was one ahead. All I needed to do after that was make a par on the 18th (he missed a 10-footer for birdie there),” remembers Bhullar.
“It was a shot delivered under pressure and the ball did everything I wanted it to do. That shot, and that entire week, will be forever etched in my memory.
“The win was obviously important because I regained my European Tour membership after that. It was my first trip to Fiji and I dearly hope we have many more chances of going there.”