24 January 2022: Ikoyi, an affluent neighbourhood to the west of Lagos, is a wealthy oasis. India may have unearthed a precious jewel from the lush leafy environs of the Ikoyi Golf Club. Avani Prashanth, still a teenager, has been making waves turning her prodigal talent into tangible results. She is now the youngest girl to complete the amateur treble in India – the Billoo Sethi Memorial, All India Juniors and the All India Ladies Amateur – completing the collection at the end of November, just after turning 15.
Sankranti brought Avani a grand surprise. Her sojourn to Abu Dhabi for the prestigious Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific Championship, where she finished T16, brought her joy but there wasn’t much else to draw or expect. But a mail in January brought an unexpected gift. Brett Sterba, the Director of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, reached out to Avani’s father over an email on the 13th January. A day later, he was on the phone with Avani informing her of an invitation to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, starting on 30 March.
“I chanced upon the mail from Brett,” explained MS Prashanth. “I happened to browse my phone late at night and found this email from the Director, asking for a suitable time to speak with Avani.”
“The invite came out of the blue. I learnt from my parents in the morning that we received an email from the Augusta National Golf Club,” said Avani. “I am delighted with the opportunity and will go there believing that I can win the tournament with my best golf.”
She was just 14, when she took the women’s professional tour by storm with a scorching come from behind victory at the Bombay Presidency Golf Club. Avani underlined her credentials with a second win at the Panchkula Golf Club, with a sizzling course record 66 in the second round.
The teenager, born in Bangalore and raised in India and Nigeria, also had a bunch of other top three finishes validating her status as the top amateur in the country.
Pleading her way to the golf course at less than four years, Avani impressed early with hand eye coordination that suggested she could excel at physical activity. The fact that she was promising at football, before choosing golf over it, underlines how Avani had a natural flair for sport.
But what has distinguished her as an athlete, is persistence and an unrelenting quest for excellence. “I started playing tournaments really young. And as I played, and kept doing well, it helped build my confidence,” said Avani. “Each tournament I played motivated me to work harder than before. I have been properly hooked to the sport since I was seven.”
A decade since showing her prowess at a US Kids Golf series event in Abuja, Avani has made the steep transition to elite golf with unfailing consistency. Victory in Abuja opened doors to events in Gullane, Scotland – US Kids Golf European Championship – and the World Championship at Pinehurst in the USA. Avani did well in Scotland and finished third in the event at Pinehurst during 2014. Her father caddied at these events, watching closely the precocious talents of his daughter.
The constant support of her parents and an understanding environment at her school have helped Avani focus on the game and constantly sharpen her skill. Early stage inputs from Vijay Divecha, Rahim Abdul Kareem until July of 2018, after which Laurence Brotheridge of the Leadbetter Golf Academy have all contributed to the development of Avani into one of the brightest sparks in Indian golf.
“We have been doing online sessions. I use the GCQUAD every time I practice and that has become a reference point,” explained Avani. “It has worked really well for me.”
A launch monitor at home and video conversations have kept the interactions real for the teenager through the past two years of constrained mobility during the pandemic.
It is no wonder that supporting Avani resonated with the development program at the Virat Kohli Foundation in 2019, which also lent a hand to Aadil Bedi. “The foundation has provided support in the form of advice from a nutritionist and a mental coach. Their professional inputs have helped Avani at an important stage of her development,” acknowledged her father.
Even though she is just 15, Avani’s GCQUAD data shows that she is carrying her driver a good 261 yards and benefit from another 5-7% roll depending on the weather and course conditions. That measures well with the top professionals in international golf. According to data provided by the Prashanths, Avani’s keeping her golf real, shooting arrows for a 76% driving accuracy. She is also making 73% greens in regulation.
But the most impressive facet of her game is from the bunkers, insists her father. “She is really good with her wedge, saving par 73% of the time she is playing from the bunkers.”
If she can sustain those levels, it may present her unique opportunities to excel when she makes the sojourn to Augusta in a couple of months. Avani played remarkably consistent golf in Abu Dhabi where she finished T16 among a field of world class amateurs, shooting 71-71-71-70.
Some of that experience and lessons of temperament should come in handy, when she works her way through Champions Retreat during the first two rounds of the 2022 ANWA Championship.
Avani has eyes set on turning professional and competing to be the best on the LPGA, with aspirations to emulate her idol Nelly Korda, the top ranked woman golfer in the world. But her journey this year has some important punctuations – the Sage Valley Invitational, the ANWA Championship and the Asian Games later this year.
Her short-term aspirations also include turning pro at 17 and competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics. That will need Avani to collect enough Rolex World Ranking points to be among the top two Indian women. She will hope that the Ladies European Tour afford enough exemptions from June this year to help her accumulate the points needed to compete with the likes of Aditi Ashok, Tvesa Malik and Diksha Dagar for a spot on the Indian Olympic team to Paris.
While her father remains a significant influence in her career, Prashanth admits that he lost the job on her bag many years ago. “We have agreed between Avani and me, the role for me is to watch out for her. That allows her to focus on the game. When I was caddying for her at Pinehurst during the World Championship, there came a moment when she needed my help, I was unable to offer her advice as a caddy and that is when I realised that I had outgrown my ability as her caddy. I believe she is the boss on the course and needs to take responsibility for her game completely.“
“It was an important event in our lives. I also happened to be reading a book called ‘Daddy Caddy on the Bag’ by Rick Heard. It was insightful about how parents tend to cramp their children. And that taught me and helped us build a clear understanding about how we could draw the lines for us.”
Avani expects to hire a local caddy from Augusta, to help her access knowledge and experience of the conditions and courses.
Her name is derived from Sanskrit, meaning the Earth. And all of it could be her stage, if she continues to produce the quality of golf that has taken her near the top of women’s golf in India.