By Joy Chakravarty
Valderrama… some call it Europe’s very own Augusta National. Hailed as a modern masterpiece of golf architecture, this Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course has severely challenged leading exponents of the game ever since it was built in 1974. Its intricacies have befuddled them, even after they have played it several times.
Like Augusta National, Valderrama has a fierce reputation. It’s brutal on inexperience. Debutants have never done well at the Sotogrande course. The golf course may have indulged newcomers for a few holes, but over the course of 72 holes, it has always separated men from the boys.
And then came India’s Jeev Milkha Singh. In 2006, playing the Volvo Masters at Valderrama for the first time, he managed to slay the beast.
Being the season-ending championship on the European Tour with the Order of Merit on line, the focus was cruelly snatched away from Jeev’s lion-hearted performance and it became a sidelight for the European media which, rightfully, had more interest in Padraig Harrington becoming the new European No1.
However, statistics will always show Jeev’s win as the ‘biggest’ ever in the history of Indian golf.
Of course, it’s very difficult to compare wins. I have been asked several times about my choice as India’s finest moment in world golf. It has always been a toss-up between Arjun Atwal’s 2010 Wyndham Championship triumph on the PGA Tour (the only by an Indian so far), and Jeev’s 2006 Volvo Masters. However, based on the Official World Golf Ranking’s (OWGR) Strength of Field index, Jeev’s victory came against a much stronger field (SoF 300).
Back to the 2006 Volvo Masters. There are two factors that massively dictate playing strategy at Valderrama – the presence of thickly-foliated cork trees that line the fairways, and the small, saucer-shaped greens which are mowed at the run-off areas and even the slightest mishit can send the ball rolling into hazards.
“Valderrama is one golf course where you’ve got to be spot on with your tee shots and you’ve got to place your approach shots perfectly for all 72 holes. It’s just relentless in its demand for accuracy. There is absolutely no let-up,” said Jeev.
“Yes, it has a fierce reputation and does not yield easily to newcomers. But I was having a really good season and I was high on confidence because I was playing well. I actually think I managed to win there because I had an amazing attitude that week.
“It used to get windy and it was very tough when I played my first practice round at Valderrama, and I instantly fell in love with the golf course. I love tough and windy courses and just knew in my heart that I’d have a good week. Also, I had won the Volvo China Open earlier that year, and really wanted to make it a Volvo double.”
By Sunday, Jeev had moved to the top of the leaderboard with two back-to-back rounds of even-par 71, followed by a gutsy three-under 68 in gusting winds on Saturday. Chasing him one behind was the cream of European golf, including local hero Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and the red-hot Swede Johan Edfors, winner of the three titles that season.
Despite making bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes for the third day in succession, Jeev reached the par-5 17th hole at two-under par total and tied for the lead with Garcia. Luke Donald and Harrington had both shot identical rounds of 69 for clubhouse lead at one-under par.
It wasn’t an easy day at Valderrama with rain pouring for most part of the morning. It became slightly more difficult for Jeev as his playing partner, Edfors, was struggling throughout the round and it is quite well known how the form of playing partners can become contagious in golf.
After smashing a superb drive down the 536-yard hole, Jeev was left with a 195-yard second shot into the slender green, which is protected by a massive water hazard in the front and a gaping bunker at the back. The green slopes from the back towards the front, which means anything over and into the back bunker almost completely rules out the chances of a birdie, and any approach not precise enough, faced the danger of rolling back into the water.
In his mind, Jeev knew this was THE shot. Ahead of him, Garcia had just failed to birdie the hole and the two were still tied at two-under at that stage. If he could pull it off and somehow make a birdie under intense pressure, it would be a much easier walk down the tough finishing hole of Valderrama with a cushion of one shot.
Jeev picked up a spot on the green where he wanted to be – about 10-15 feet left of the pin that was just about five paces from the water on the right – and picked out his six-iron for execution.
“I aimed for a fade from the left edge of the green and it came out exactly as I wanted it. It turned ever so slightly and rolled to exactly where I wanted it to be,” remembers Jeev.
“It was for the biggest win of my career against a world-class field. There was pressure and I had to account for adrenaline. That was one of the best distance-control shots I have hit.”
The eagle putt narrowly missed from 16 feet, but Jeev got his birdie. Garcia made a bogey on the 18th, giving the Indian ace a two-shot cushion, and he needed that because he too made a bogey.
In the end, it did not matter. He may not have provided the grandstand finish, but at two-under par total, he had written one of the most glorious chapters in the history of Indian golf.