Promise Pays Off For Alabama Golf
"I told them I'd buy them a private jet when I grow up," Rhea Nair, now 18, said.
It worked. Before even reaching her teenage years, Nair, who was born in India before moving to Dubai, was on an airplane headed solo for the United States simply to pursue the game she loved.
Nair started playing golf with her father at 10 years old. Quality coaching in the oil-rich state of Dubai was at a premium, so to receive the proper training, Nair knew the United States would need to become home. So she flew to Hilton Head, S.C. to train for a year before moving to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where she would live and train through high school.
When it came time to find a college, Nair got a late start, after most schools had wrapped up their recruiting classes. One of the college placement advisors at the academy suggested she take a look at Alabama – a school still looking to round out its recruiting class. A call was placed to Alabama coach Mic Potter to gauge his interest, while Nair prepared for a junior tournament that week.
"I ended up winning the tournament that weekend," Nair said, "and [Tide assistant coach] Susan [Rosenstiel] came and looked at me and watched me play nine holes and I came here in December for an official visit. I loved it, and I didn't take any other official visits."
Nair joined the Alabama squad in December 2006, and saw heavy playing time her freshman year, competing in 10 of the Tide's 11 events. The potential, coach Potter saw, was undoubtedly there for Nair, it was just a matter of pinpointing the specific issues in her game that were leading to a 78.57 stroke average over the course of the year.
It didn't take long.
"Specifically for me it was putting," Nair said. "My ball striking was okay, but I couldn't putt for anything last year. My stroke was horrible. I had to change that over the winter. I wanted whatever it took to get it fixed."
Nair and Potter spent the winter revamping her putting stroke from the bottom up. Grip, approach and technique were all altered in an attempt to lower Nair's 33 putts-per-round. Since November, she has been able to lower the number to 29 putts-per-round, dropping her overall scoring average by four strokes per 18 holes.
It's a difference that has meant not only an improved performance from Nair, who now finds her spot routinely in the top ten, but an improved depth on an Alabama team now breaking into the nation's elite in women's golf.
"It's made a tremendous difference," Potter said. "I think it's great for us because we now have a couple girls who are consistently finishing in the top 10 and that makes you stronger."
Born in Bombay, India, Nair grew up in an English-speaking household, the daughter of Ashok Kumar and Afshan Sharafali. Her father now has a construction company in the booming Dubai and her mother is the manager for an airline. The language barrier of moving from Asia to the United States was never an issue — Nair's parents were each from different parts of India and therefore could not understand each other unless they were speaking English. She also attended an English school.
As opposed to many international athletes who do not come to the United States until they are college-aged, the six years Nair spent stateside before coming to Alabama gave her a chance to become oriented to the demands that would required of her on the Division I college level. She was already used to a dorm environment; learning to get along with people was understood and the work load on the golf course was second nature before she ever set foot in Tuscaloosa.
Experiencing that, Potter said, gave her a head start before starting with the team.
"She's very Americanized and very comfortable," he said. "The golf part of it aside there's nothing better than having someone watching you all day every day making sure you're doing the right thing in your game."
Nair visits home twice a year, each Christmas and summer, to see her parents, as well as to check on the progress being made in the ever-changing region, home to more than 30,000 construction cranes, or almost 25 percent of all the cranes in the world.
While she knew coming to the U.S. at such a young age would be beneficial to her golf game, Nair admits it wasn't always easy to adjust to such a drastically different lifestyle.
When it would get hard, however, there was one place she could always count on relaxing.
"It was hard at first and I got homesick a little, but I love golf so much that I would get out there and forget about everything," she said.
And a private jet, she knows, would certainly make things easier.
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