Planet GolfApril 1, 2012

Golf In India: Life On The Other Side Of The Wall

Despite a booming economy, a vast population and a long history of golf, very few in India have access to the game

Anil Mane, in front of his home in Mumbai, hopes to make it as a professional golfer.

Anil Mane, in front of his home in Mumbai, hopes to make it as a professional golfer.

Along the edge of the Dr. Choithram Gidwani Road in the heart of Mumbai, against a high stone wall, is a row of slum houses made of corrugated iron, tarpaulin and string--the kind of accommodation that is home for more than half of the city's 14 million people. This is where, in a 10-foot-by-10-foot space, with a dirt floor and no plumbing, professional golfer Anil Mane, 30, lives with his wife and four small children.

On the other side of the wall are the bucolic rolling fairways of the Bombay Presidency Golf Club, one of three golf courses in the city; a genteel world of monthly medals, bridge events and Sing Song Nites in the old-style colonial-pavilion clubhouse, which has high wood beams and ceiling fans, a snooker room and dusty cabinets filled with long-ago trophies, salvers and quaichs, and a sunny veranda with a green-and-white-striped awning, beneath which the members retire for afternoon tea.

Willingdon Sports Club

The haves and have-nots. They are inescapably glaring in Mumbai, a high-voltage, relentless, everything city where all kinds of life--beggars and businessmen, paupers and princes--are thrown together in close quarters. Sleek new $300-a-night glass-and-steel hotel towers loom over makeshift shanties at their feet. A vagrant sits beneath a billboard for an upscale fashion magazine. At every stoplight, desperate hawkers tap on the windows of luxury SUVs, offering their wares--among the many items we declined were bicycle tires, a pink feather duster and a bootleg copy of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. At the exclusive Willingdon Sports Club, where back in the day Rolls-Royces, Duesenbergs and Bugattis filled the parking lot, and bejeweled and robed Indian princes and maharajas mixed with the upper echelons of the British Raj, we crossed a small road-cum-building-site-cum-temporary settlement to get from the sixth green to the seventh tee, and a couple of little bright-eyed, barefoot ragamuffin girls watched us from atop a pile of rubble--playing golf against such a backdrop induces a kind of vertigo. Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums, has more than a million people packed into a square mile; not far away is the 27-story, $2 billion home of India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, which comes with a ballroom, a cinema, three helipads and a staff of 600. A Mumbai golfer we met told us that no one even lives there anymore: After the family moved in, in 2010, it was decided that the place was riddled with bad vaastu--a sort of Hindu feng shui.

Extremes of inequality. The Hindu concept of moksha, enlightenment and reincarnation means that those with the least will, through noble acceptance, achieve a higher position in the next life. She who is last will be first. And vice versa. Most of the golfers will have to get to the back of the line.

Back at Bombay Presidency, we play nine holes with Anil, and he tells us his story. His father was a caddie, and soon the young Anil went into the family business, too. "I was 12 years old when I first hit a golf ball," he says. He was caddieing, and on the fourth hole his player suggested he have a swing with a 7-iron. "At that time I didn't like golf," he says. "But after that shot I liked it, and I thought, I can play golf." He left school at 14 and started caddieing and playing in earnest. Two years ago, one of the supportive club members agreed to sponsor him on the burgeoning domestic pro tour. He played 15 events on the domestic tour in 2011, and, a month earlier had a second-place finish at a feeder-tour event in Lucknow. His total winnings from both tours so far are 182,236 rupees--about $2,600, which he supplements with caddie fees, lessons and tips. Anil used to compete in makeshift golf events in the slums, too. He gets some free balls, gloves and shoes from a local Titleist distributor. "But it's hard to play," he says, "because it costs 20,000 rupees for each tournament for entry and travel"--about $400. The average annual income in India is about $1,000.

The parkland course is gentle, relaxing. Stray dogs sleep in the shade or patrol the fringes of the fairways, as if acting as our private escorts. Anil commands the golf course with an impressive stride and confidence. He has a super-fast hip swivel through the ball that dispatches his drives more than 300 yards. He also shows promise as a teacher: "You're trying to force it," he tells me, and I start to play better. The caddie-made-good story has turned him into something of a local hero -- he was the subject of an excellent ESPN short film last year ("Mumbai Golf" on YouTube

).

"My dream is to play on the Asian Tour and win a tournament," Anil says over Indian fast-food snacks in the halfway house. He finishes the nine in 36, one over par.

Anil then takes us back to the other side of the wall, to see his home. His wife is there, with his third daughter. The TV is on. The room is adorned with golf ephemera. He proudly shows us his first driver: a well-worn Callaway ERC Fusion. Outside on the street, standing beside the delirium of traffic, stray chickens, dogs, bicycles and chaos, we meet some of Anil's large extended family: siblings, cousins, caddies. "All the caddies live along here," Anil says, stretching his arm down the road. He has spent his whole life here, but soon these homes will be torn down, and Anil will be moving with his family into public housing a few miles away, something he is happy about. But he might miss this place. Along this dusty highway, there is a tremendous sense of family, of community, of everyone looking out for each other.

"You're a lucky man," one of our foursome suggests to Anil as we say goodbye. It might seem a ridiculous thing for a Westerner to say, but it contains some important, forgotten truth.

Anil smiles. "I'm happy," he says.

A GAME FOR THE ELITE

We're at the venerable 100-year-old Delhi Golf Club, the Augusta National of India, with a 25-year waiting list and an enviable location right downtown--the sixth green is just 1,000 yards from the nation's epicenter, the India Gate. The course is laid out over an ancient burial ground, dotted with stunning, elaborate Lodhi Dynasty tombs. The Lal Bangla mausoleum next to the clubhouse dates to 1780 and is the resting place of a Mughal emperor's favorite concubine.

Anil Mane

Today is the first round of the Indian Open, so the place is buzzing, alive with tanned, limber, superhuman-looking golfers from all over Asia and beyond. We walk for a few holes, watching the golfers negotiate the narrow fairways, ringed by jhari--thick, impenetrable jungle where cobras live and where, a century ago, tigers once roamed free. By the 14th and 16th tees, there's a café next to another tomb, where we rest in the shade with a refreshing nimbu pani--sweetened lime water. Later, back at the clubhouse, I sit down with 64-year-old Maj. Gen. Abhi Parmar VSM (Retired), the director general of the Indian Golf Union. "Golf has a great future in India," he says, not unexpectedly. "There'll be about 20 new courses over the next two to three years. Golf has become more affordable. The middle class is becoming more prosperous. Parents are taking an interest in golf."

The Major General has a gentle manner, which carries no suggestion of his 36 years of combat in the Indian Army infantry. He was posted to all the worst, deadliest flash points and trouble spots around India's vast border: He fought in conflicts with Burma, China, Pakistan; he fought in the bloody liberation of Bangladesh; and for two brutal years, he commanded a battalion in Kashmir.

Maintaining a single-digit handicap is not easy when each posting lasted for three years, when access to golf was unlikely. "Occasionally you could find some open ground and hit a few balls," he recalls. But not into enemy territory? "Oh, no," he says. "For them we fired only bullets."

The British took much from this land during the long years of colonial subjugation, but one crumb they left behind was golf. The oldest golf club outside the United Kingdom is Royal Calcutta, which dates to 1829. Yet despite this rich legacy, the country's vast population of 1.2 billion, a rapidly growing middle class and an economy that barrels along with an annual growth rate of 8 percent, golf remains a highly marginal, elitist activity. There are at most 150,000 active golfers in India, and some estimates put the real figure at half that.

There are several reasons for this. According to a 2011 KPMG report, there is "an underlying theme of lack of professional expertise and knowledge within the Indian golf industry." So far there's a lack, too, of any real breakout homegrown golf superstar who could ignite interest in the way that, say, Se Ri Pak did for Korea--at the time of writing, the highest ranked male Indian golfer was 40-year-old Jeev Milkha Singh, 189th in the world. But far and away the biggest issue is lack of access to golf. "Golf is still not a common man's game," the Major General agrees. "Not like cricket, which is a kind of religion here. It will take time for golf to become a common man's game."

In a country with so much abject poverty, where still a quarter of adults are illiterate, golf does not register on the hierarchy of needs. It's hard to acquire land for development, and in a lively democracy with a proud tradition of protest, opposition is common: Last year, for instance, a group of farmers demonstrated against the forcible acquisition of land by the state, in Noida, outside Delhi, to construct the new Buddh Formula 1 racetrack and entertainment/business/residential complex, including a golf course. "You have to listen to the voice of the people," the Major General says. "Public sentiments take priority. Things take time. And golf is a recreation. You can't take away someone's livelihood or home because you want to play golf. A democracy respects all people."

Man walking in india

The whole nation has just one public course--Qutab Golf Course in Delhi costs 300 rupees (about $6) on weekdays--four stand-alone driving ranges, and no real golf resorts. About half of India's 230 courses are on military bases, generally reserved for "officer class" types. Almost all the other courses are private clubs, which can be far from welcoming, and often impose the usual Catch-22: a handicap certificate is required to play, but if you can't play you can't ever get a handicap. Mumbai native Kiran Kanwar, a lively, innovative golf instructor, estimates there are no more than 5,000 handicap-holding female golfers in all of India. At Bombay Presidency, I'd asked the secretary, a retired cricket umpire, if the club ever allows visitors to play who aren't guests of members. "Oh, no, we couldn't do that," he replied. "We used to allow that, a long time ago. But we don't want to let just anyone play. It would get too busy, and they wouldn't look after the course." On the pleasant Friday afternoon that we played with Anil, the golf course was almost empty.

The wall alongside the golf course that keeps Mumbai out is symbolic. There are many such walls. After visiting India, Mark Twain described it as "the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods." The caste system, too, exploited and solidified under British rule, was supposed to have been brushed aside long ago by the devouring logic of modern capitalism. Yet these divisions remain entrenched and can serve to keep Indian society on the side of bureaucracy. Still today, if you want to rent an apartment or work for a company but you're of the wrong caste, or you're a Muslim who wants to marry a Hindu, or you just want to play some golf but don't know any club members and don't have a handicap certificate, you're probably going to come up against a wall. In Suketu Mehta's book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a love letter to his hometown, he describes India as "the Country of the No."

THE FUTURE: BRIGHT HORIZONS?

On the outskirts of Delhi, in a few short decades the new corporate city of Gurgaon has emerged from forest and scratchy farmland. Where chilies and grain once grew, there are now gleaming office parks, luxury hotels and the DLF Golf and Country Club, whose Arnold Palmer-designed course is generally regarded as the best in India. One minute you're in a taxi among rickshaws, tractors and wild boar roaming the streets, then suddenly you pass through the security gates and enter an oasis, to be greeted with marigold garlands, giant coconut shells filled with fruit punch, and chilled hand towels.

There's swimming here, tennis, an equestrian center, a gym. An impressive teaching facility. Floodlights for night golf. Plans for a new clubhouse. Another 18 holes, to be designed by Gary Player. More. Better. All for the amusement of the 2,000 well-heeled members.

Later, playing the 18th hole to a chorus of bird song and the jackhammers from distant construction sites, a vast setting sun shone directly through the hollow shell of a series of enormous buildings, soon to contain luxury duplex apartments. (The completed ones are selling for about $500,000.) A new New Delhi. This beautiful, ancient nation has a young and hungry populace: Half of Indians are under 25, and they are impatient for a better life. As new walls are being built, the old ones, cracked and crumbling, give way.

Deli Golf Club