India swings towards golf

Jeev Milkha Singh with the 2008 Singapore Open prize (Image courtesy: http://jeevmilkhasingh.net)

You would not even raise an eyebrow when you hear of some Indian kids wanting to emulate golfing ace Tiger Woods rather than a Sachin Tendulkar or a Leander Paes or a Viswanathan Anand or a Geet Sethi. Yet, as recently as two decades ago, if someone had predicted a golf boom in India, you would not have been blamed if you fell off your chair.

Consider this: Last year, Ashok Kumar won Rs 53 lakh in prize money from events on the Professional Golf Tour of India calendar. This year, Gaganjeet Bhullar (Kapurthala) has picked up cheques worth Rs 17.83 lakh from the PGTI Tour while the evergreen Mukesh Kumar (Mhow) has won Rs 14.38 lakh and Anirban Lahiri (Bangalore) Rs 14 lakh.

The European Challenge Tour had its maiden a stop in India this year, emulating like the European Tour that has been here four times already. “If we had so many world-class tournaments in India during my early career, India would have had a Major champion by now,” says Jeev Milkha Singh, for long among India’s finest sporting ambassadors. “But that day is not far away.”

At least 40 new golf courses are springing up in the country in addition to the 230 course that are in existence. And these are getting to be really challenging courses, designed by the best in the business like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus etc. Jeev Milkha Singh, who designed the Kensville Golf Club near Ahmedabad, says it is just the kind of course young Indian golfers need to get used to if they hope to do well at the highest level. “It’s a long windy course with lots of water hazards, which makes it a really stern test,” he says.

And, to top it all, there are thousands of kids who are taking to golf each year. Some reckon that there would be at least half a million golfers in India now, with at least 200,000 taking it up in the last seven or eight years, even though there are no visible attempts by Government to promote golf tourism, if not golf itself.

To be sure, Indian gold would not have taken such leaps without taking the baby steps over a number of years. Golf made its appearance in India in the early 19th century, thanks to the strong British presence. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club was established in 1829 and is the oldest such institution outside the British Isles but it wasn’t until nearly a century and a half later that an Indian made his presence felt on a major platform. Prem Gopal ‘Billoo’ Sethi became the trendsetter by winning the Indian Open ahead of the redoubtable Australian Peter Thomson in its second year 1965.

Then again, despite Lakshman Singh winning two gold medals at the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, it needed a caddie turned pro Ali Sher to win the Indian Open in 1991 to really spark the golf boom that we are now witnessing. In fact, it was not only in the 90s that professional golf really took off in India. The Professional Golf Association of India and Tiger Sports Management did their bit to raise professional golf in India to new levels by maxing prize money from a modest Rs 46.9 lakh in 1993-94 to a whopping Rs 3.05 crore in 2004-05.

Despite that, it needed the likes of Jeev Milkha Singh, Jyoti Randhawa and Arjun Atwal to venture out and show that it was possible for Indians to do well in alien conditions, raising the profile of Indian golf. When Jeev Milkha Singh won the Shinhan Donghae Open in Korea, he broke new ground for Indian golfers overseas. Jyoti Randhawa topped the Asian Tour Order of Merit and Atwal became the first Indian to win an European PGA Tour event when he claimed top prize in the Malaysian Open in 2003. They have all understood that the process is more important than the end result itself. They realised that they were becoming too result oriented and losing focus on the process itself.

 “There is no doubt that the likes of Jeev Milka Singh, Jyoti Randhawa and Arjun Atwal have provided huge inspiration to today’s generation of golfers, showing that Indians can play abroad and compete on all stages round the world,” says coaching pro Karan Bindra.  “The likes of Ashok Kumar, Shiv Kapur, Anirban Lahiri, Gaganjeet Bhullar, SSP Chowrasia have all drawn from these players feats and sought to strengthen India’s presence at the world stage.”

And, since the Professional Golf Tour of India, under the guidance of industrialist Gautam Thapar, took over the running of the Indian Tour in 2006, prize money on the Indian Tour has seen an upswing and is now in the region of Rs 8 crore a year, with at least five international events.

For all that, the moot question remains: Is it still a rich man’s sport? Indeed, the green fees can be high but it is tough to answer that with just a monosyllabic response. But it is true that with a number of schools showing interest in the game by helping their students find the right training facilities, it is percolating down.

Bindra says the popularity of the sport among the junior players has to be seen to be believed. “There has been an exciting, dramatic rise in the past five years or so – and it is not just because Tiger Woods has become a household name in India as the best golfer ever,” he says.  “There are 300 juniors at the DLF Academy where I coach and there must be at least 2500-3000 such players in the National Capital Region alone.

“There is no doubt that base is expanding. Previously we had 10 golfers of quality and three of them succeeded in breaking the jinx but now we have scored of golfers of quality and at least 10 of them are making waves,” Bindra says. “The immense amount of work done at the junior level in the past decade or so will soon start showing results.”

Indeed, in the coming years there will be a lot of attention on the likes of Trishul Chinappa (Bangalore), Honey Baisoya (Delhi), Syed Saqib Ahmed (Bangalore), Tarundeep Singh Chadda (Chandigarh) who are India’s top juniors today and will be ready to join the pro ranks sooner than later.

Of course, with a surge in popularity and in participation, the need for more public driving ranges and courses will become greater than ever before. You would not need to be raising any eyebrows if State Governments recognised this demand and earmark areas in cities and towns in response. Or if a champion emerges from what are deemed to be golfing backwaters in India.

(This article was written for and has first appeared in  The Tabla  magazine, Singapore)