Play golf till the sun shines: How Jeev Milkha remembers mentor Doug Sanders
Douglas (Doug) Sanders is gone but the ways in which the 20-time PGA Tour winner touched the lives of aspiring golfers across the globe stays. In our part of the world, a recipient of Sanders’ generosity is Jeev Milkha Singh, and when news of the 86-year-old’s natural death trickled in late on April 12, Singh was wistful. “The Sanders (Doug and wife Scotty) were instrumental in getting me where I am,” said Singh, who has the distinction of being the highest-ranked Indian ever in the world at No 28 in 2009 and won nine times across three global tours between 2008 and 2012.
The association dates back to 1987 when Singh, then 16, won the Doug Sanders Asian Division in Australia, a qualifier for the final in Aberdeen, Scotland. The runner-up finish gave the strapping golfer a chance to interact with Sanders, who was playing the senior tour in the US but had lost none of the imposing persona. Overcoming the initial apprehension, Singh shared his dream of turning professional and if Sanders could help with a golf scholarship in an American college.
Things stayed that way till Sanders got back with an offer next year that Singh accepted only to regret. Adjusting to high school in Houston was tough. “I was used to a different life in Chandigarh which revolved around golf and I got homesick within a month and came back despite Doug’s efforts to persuade me,” said Singh.
A phone call from Sanders in 1991 gave Singh another chance to chase his dream. The Abilene Christian University near Dallas, Texas, was looking to add an international golfer to the college team and Sanders recommended Singh to the team coach.
“Being government officials, my parents (Milkha and Nirmal) could not afford the college fees despite a 50 per cent waiver,” said Singh. The Sanders stepped in and paid the remaining $30,000 for the two-year associate’s degree in business and administration.
Singh made the most of the chance and won the Conference in 1992 (an inter-collegiate tournament in Texas) and the NCAA (all American) Division 2 the next year. Felicitated for finishing among the top-five amateur golfers in the US, Singh was included in the college hall of fame. The practice of writing “I was born to win” 10 times before bedtime, which he learnt during life learning skills classes in college, had borne fruit.
With little else to prove, Singh turned pro in May 1993 in consultation with Sanders. “While encouraging me, Doug told me there were no shortcuts to success,” said Singh.
The attempt to qualify for the PGA Tour did not pay off, but Singh stood wiser from the time spent with the Sanders at their sprawling house in Houston. Doug gave an insight into his numerous wins on tour and the runner-up finishes at Majors, Scotty took care of the emotional aspect. “She was like a mother figure, always there for me knowing I was far away from home. At that age, you need that moral support to stay away from bad habits and company,” said Singh.
Before he left for India to focus on the Asian Tour, Scotty, a devout Christian, gifted a Bible with ‘Chiranjeev Milkha Singh’ embossed on the leather cover. It was on the suggestion of his mentors that Chiranjeev was shortened to Jeev for easier pronunciation in that part of the world. The name stuck on and Jeev went on to become a revered name across the Asian, European and Japan tours.
For many seasons, the Bible was a part of Singh’s knapsack and he used to read passages during tournament weeks for positive energy. Despite being on the move as his career soared, Singh made it a point to stay in touch with the family and even hosted Scotty a number of times at his Chandigarh home.
Sanders’ demise has caused anguish but he lives on in the 48-year-old Singh’s work ethic. “Before I turned pro, Doug told me ‘never waste any sunlight’ (to keep practicing till the sun is up) and that’s the way it is till date.”