I have to admit, before playing devil’s advocate, that I am not immune to the feel-good factor of seeing a USPGA Tour-sanctioned (unofficial) event—albeit a limited-field one—with an Indian company as the title sponsor. Whichever way you look at it, the fact that 18 of the world’s best players are playing the final round of the Hero World Challenge today—at Isleworth Golf & Country Club—hosted by none other than Tiger Woods himself is quite astonishing. Especially since there isn’t a single Indian player with playing rights on the PGA Tour—Arjun Atwal had four starts all year, and made the cut in one. And that’s the depth, or lack of it, of the Indian challenge on the pre-eminent golf tour in the world.
The irony is pretty much in your face: corporate India has the moolah, not just to bankroll a $3.5-million (R21 crore) event for four years, but also to sign up Woods as the ‘Global Corporate Partner’—a four-year deal, which will reportedly fetch Woods $32 million (R250 crore) over four years. That’s $46 million for a four-year period, give or take a few millions, making Hero MotoCorp second only to Nike when it comes to Woods’ sponsors. It’s also the biggest endorsement deal for the golf star since his very public sex scandal in 2008 and ensuing exodus of sponsors in 2009.
On the bleaker side, India still hasn’t produced—with due credit to Jeev Milkha Singh and Atwal—a pool of players who’ve established themselves in the game’s elite pool of players on the PGA Tour. It’s hard, at this point, not to spare a thought for what that kind of money could have done for golf infrastructure, junior training programmes and, just generally, the growth of the game in the country. And if that had happened, Hero MotoCorp and, by extension, Pawan Munjal, would have gone down in history as Indian golf’s biggest heroes.
Still, it’s not fair to thrust the mantle of golf’s development in the country on Munjal’s shoulders. That lies squarely on the governing body of the game in India. And to give the man credit, Hero has sponsored the $1.5-million Indian Open since 2005 and has been instrumental in the tournament’s elevation to a European Tour-co-sanctioned event in 2015. The decision to bring on Woods appears to be in line with the company’s global expansion plans—as of now, 98% of Hero MotoCorp’s sales take place in the Indian market, but the company plans to enter 50 new markets over the next two years and bump up production of motorcycles and scooters to 12 million, entrenching its status as the largest manufacturer of two-wheelers in the world. Munjal echoed as much in an interview to Associated Press: “He cuts across the globe—non-golfers, golfers, everyone. I’m not looking at the athlete. I think he (Woods) is probably one of the most famous celebrities… He is going to add a huge amount of value to the brand Hero, which clearly is going global in its intent and with its product and the brand.”
Munjal’s distinction between ‘athlete’ and ‘celebrity’ is significant, given Woods’ struggles with injuries and, by the very benchmark he set in his prime, his wildly inconsistent play over the past couple of years. When he teed it up at the Hero World Challenge recently, it was Woods’ first competitive round since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August and hurt his back. It was the fifth time—and the second time this year—that Woods has had to take an enforced break from the game on account of injury. The 39-year-old has had four surgeries on his left knee, one on his back and has had to treat an injured Achilles tendon. By his own admission, his age and physical condition have thwarted his domination of the game, which was taken for granted in the 2000s. At the time this column was written, Woods had shot a dismal five-over 77 in his first competitive round in almost four months. He looked rusty and even flubbed chips, but, most importantly, did not struggle physically, which augurs well for his future. Not too many people would be betting on Woods overhauling Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, but it’s a fair conjecture that the relevance and equity of Brand Tiger are unlikely to diminish over the next five years or so. While Woods has slipped to 24th in the world, his ability to draw crowds and reignite interest in the game remains unparalleled. As the tagline in the infamous Nike ad featuring Woods in March last year said: ‘Winning takes care of everything’. As it turns out, even when he’s not winning, Woods still seems to retain his ability to pull in the greenbacks.
On another note, this deal means that Hero MotoCorp now has the unique achievement of sponsoring tournaments on four major tours—PGA Tour, European Tour, Asian Tour and Ladies European Tour. And one of them—the $300,000-LET co-sanctioned Hero Women’s Indian Open—got off to a rousing start last Thursday when French golfer Gwladys Nocera shot a course-record nine-under 64 at the Delhi Golf Club to lead on the opening day followed closely by young Vaishavi Sinha at six-under. For 24-year-old Sinha, who returned to competitive golf after a hiatus of seven months in October and turned pro earlier this year, it’s been nothing short of a dream run in the pro-ranks. Sinha’s run has been pretty unprecedented, but the golf fraternity in India is too gobsmacked to notice.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game