In a nation that worships cricket, there are still many challenges to be overcome
Like with all sports, post-pandemic golf is a little different. Common sights like bunker rakes, water coolers, trash bins, ball washers, etc, are now completely avoided. There is no exchange of score cards as players mark their own scores. Hugs and handshakes have been replaced by tapping putters. ‘Air five’ works best to celebrate strokes. The intention is to minimise touch, but get the maximum out of the spirit of the game. And the spirit of the game is certainly not lost.
Amid all the social distancing norms, the rules of the game may have been slightly twisted, but the sport is thriving and how. In fact, in a nation that worships cricket, golf is gradually getting a clear advantage. And it’s easy to see why, as golf allows social distancing in a natural environment. One doesn’t have to share clubs or balls and open areas facilitate and help maintain pandemic rules. Many golf clubs have even implemented a one-rider-per-cart policy to avoid contact. “Despite Covid-19, this is one outdoor sport which was permitted and still has the best advantage. Participants don’t have to mash together,” says 77-year-old golfer Ravindra Singh Bedi, former president, Delhi Golf Club. “With a number of events cancelled last year, new people got into playing, as they saw it as a relatively safe activity. Cooped up most of the time of the year, they eagerly took advantage of this game, as it takes you away from a depressing environment,” he adds.
With more Indian amateurs turning professional, senior golfers have high hopes for the future and popularity of the game. Youngsters started taking to the game in droves over the last decade or so buoyed by the international success of players like Anirban Lahiri. Shubhankar Sharma is a great case in point of someone who was inspired by the first lot of Indian golfers who made it big—Jyoti Randhawa, Arjun Atwal and Jeev Milkha Singh—and has gone on to play at the highest level. “The interest is on the rise, especially when youngsters see a future in it. Especially with Tiger Woods, who was among a few players to take off in the game and caught the imagination of the younger generation,” says Delhi-based golfer Rohit Sabherwal, former captain and currently on the board of Delhi Golf Club, a prominent club, which has hosted the European Tour’s Indian Open and the Asian Tour’s Panasonic Open. The club reopened its renovated course in November 2019 to attract national and international golf opportunities. “With television and the internet, there’s easy access to sports channels now than perhaps a few decades ago. They see Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy as mentors, (thinking) if they can do it, we can too,” adds Sabherwal.
Agrees Pune-based Sampath Chari, tournament director, Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI)—the controlling body for professional golf in India. “It’s no more an old man’s game. It has a lot to do with fitness and hitting the ball straight. Woods is impeccable when it comes to achieving play and performance, especially for the young generation,” says Chari, who has been part of the Indian golf scene for more than two decades.
Talking about the increasing number of golf players in the country, Kolkata-based Shiv Shankar Prasad Chawrasia, the two-time winner of Hero Indian Open (in 2016 and 2017), says, “In the past decade, the graph has been upwards. There are more Indian players coming from various clubs, say, about 15-20 players unlike one or two every year.”
There are about 5,300 members in the Delhi Golf Club at present with a waiting time of about 13 years for the service category. For the residual category, it’s about 29 years. The numbers show that more people want to enrol and play golf at clubs. There’s also the Junior Training Programme organised by the club, which enrols over 200 kids, aged between six and 14 years, from all over India in the summer vacations every year. The aim is to organise a golf development programme for them to learn without any discrimination and to get the best training.
Nevertheless, 2020 was a watershed year for golf, with many events and tournaments being cancelled. Individual participation, however, hasn’t been impacted. Many, in fact, describe the game as an heirloom that passes down generations and a circuit which grows organically. At DLF Golf and Country Club, one of the most prestigious golf clubs in Asia-Pacific, there’s been an increase in demand for membership and regular usage by existing members. There has been a change in perception in the last decade, says Gurugram-based Aakash Ohri, senior executive director, DLF Home Developers, which manages DLF Golf and Country Club. “About a decade or so ago, it was thought of as the game for the older and the elite. Today, it has a changed perception, as it is one of the rare sports that brings together players of all ages and abilities. Newcomers, who belong to the younger age groups and from varied sections of society, have access to the game now more than before,” says Ohri.
Predominantly played in ‘the six inches between the ears’, golf is a challenging sport due to the mental strength and physical resilience required to cover the massive yards of turf. There are other challenges as well. For starters, there are just around 100 courses in India with minimal access to the public. There is also the lack of officials and referees. “We have approximately 40-50 officials and referees in India as compared to countries like the US with more than 1,000 qualified referees. Also, the government should focus on opening more public golf courses. In countries like the US, Korea and Japan, there are plenty of public driving ranges and golf courses. Though there are a few upcoming courses in India, it is still far away from equalling the golfing standards in other Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan. If the game has to grow, it should be accessible to the common man,” says Chari, an international referee certified by the The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Scotland, who has officiated in tournaments on the PGTI calendar, Asian Tour and joint European Tour events since 2006.
Golf is also an expensive sport to play regularly. The cheapest club starts at around Rs 15,000 and goes up to over Rs 2 lakh, excluding shoes, gloves, etc. The estimate of green fee for a non-member (fee paid for the privilege of playing on a golf course) per session starts at about Rs 1,500 and goes up to Rs 6,500 per session at a private or exclusive club.
The PGTI has been struggling for a while now and the pandemic has certainly not helped, says Delhi-based golfer Meraj Shah, who also writes about the game. “Player sponsorships are lacking and it’s wealthy kids or children of people in the armed forces, and caddies, who continue to dominate the player pool. Despite the game being included in the Olympics, there has been little initiative by the government to promote the game. For instance, Delhi has one municipal golf course in Qutab and one driving range at Siri Fort, where people can pick up the game relatively inexpensively. Club memberships are not coming down, only going up, and sponsorship is only likely to increase with more public interest in the game,” says Shah.
Lack of professional training, infrastructure and funding are also major issues. “The purse in India is not huge yet. Also, we lack in factors like government policies, infrastructure and better funding. It is still an unorganised sport,” says Delhi-based golfer Sabherwal.
As most professionals come from affluent backgrounds, it becomes difficult for those with humble backgrounds to get a break. Kolkata-based golfer Chawrasia, however, is an exception. Known in the circuit as SSP, he is the son of a greens-keeper, who picked up the game while staying at Kolkata’s Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) when he was six. “There are a few courses in the country largely run by private players. The state governments must show interest in constructing public courses, so that more amateurs and those not so privileged have access to play,” asserts Chawrasia. Last year, in December, he started the SSP Foundation, in association with the RCGC, to impart training to 20 underprivileged kids.
Besides golf’s development, Chawrasia is looking forward to back-to-back events this year. “We just had the Qatar Masters and Kenya Open… this will be followed by Spain in May and then the Indian Open in Delhi, I am looking forward to a good game in 2021,” he says.
In 2020, golf was majorly hit as top corporate tournaments—Asian Tour’s Royal Cup 2020 in Thailand, European Tour’s Kenyan Open in Kenya—were called off. Industry experts projected a loss of R100 crore with European Tour’s flagship $1.75-million Hero Indian Open, PGTI events and corporate tours (Audi Quattro Cup, Mercedes Trophy, BMW International Cup, Volvo World Golf Challenge, among others) being called off.
But things have improved steadily over the years when it comes to prize money, with most entities involved in sponsoring tournaments looking to improve the environment. Events with prize money of Rs 3-6 lakh in the early 2000s have now scaled up to a range starting from Rs 30 lakh and going up to Rs 2 crore in professional golf. “The prize money also depends on the size of the tournament,” shares Uttam Singh Mundy, CEO, PGTI. “A lot of youngsters are coming to play the game and make a living. As more people take interest, it helps the game to grow. We are making indents slowly but steadily,” says Mundy, who organised four events in November and December 2020 in Panchkula, Chandigarh and Jamshedpur amid safety precautions. The sponsors were Tata Steel and Take Solutions. “We expect two tournaments every month in various places in India, but it’s tough to get sponsorship as companies are affected. With the introduction of new sponsors and brands like Gujarat Tourism and Glade One, a golf course and resort brand in Ahmedabad, it is good news for the sport,” shares Mundy.
The PGTI, too, has been a stepping stone for golfers. With PGTI tournaments now offering world ranking points, the domestic circuit has become more valuable for Indian golfers. “It also means that the task of referees and tournament director requires more responsibility,” feels Chari.
All said and done, 2021 is the year to look forward to as this year three big tournaments are back-to-back and pros will be able to attend all in one go. In October, there is the Asian PGA tour with three tournaments—DLF Indian Open, Panasonic Open and Delhi Golf Club Open—which will give a big fillip to the game in India.
In the past decade, the graph has been upwards. There are more Indian players coming from various clubs, say, about 15-20 players unlike one or two every year
— Golfer Shiv Shankar Prasad Chawrasia, two-time winner of the Hero Indian Open
Though there are a few upcoming courses in India, it is still far away from equalling the golfing standards in other Asian countries. If the game has to grow, it should be accessible to the common man
— Sampath Chari, tournament director, Professional Golf Tour of India, the controlling body for professional golf in India