February 12, 2008

Stepping Onto The Stage

Last week's European Tour event in New Delhi was but the latest example of golf's emergence in India

Faces of Indian golf: (clockwise) a marshal at the Indian Masters at Delhi GC; Mahon, a caddie, plays Royal Calcutta GC; workers prepare Royal Calcutta for play.

Faces of Indian golf: (clockwise) a marshal at the Indian Masters at Delhi GC; Mahon, a caddie, plays Royal Calcutta GC; workers prepare Royal Calcutta for play.

To the western eye at least, it is both a shocking and humbling sight. Less than 10 yards from the entrance to Royal Calcutta GC -- founded in 1829 and the oldest in the world outside the British Isles -- an elderly man covered in soapsuds is washing in the river. Next to him a woman is cleaning what is, one assumes, the family laundry. Not six feet from her, a stray dog urinates into the putrid water that doubles, judging by the foul smell, as the local sewer.

Inside the club gate, of course, a very different world unfolds. "Old" golf in India, introduced by the British forces stationed there during the days of the Empire, is populated by the affluent few in a country where the ever-rising population already exceeds 1.1 billion souls. But the incongruity continues, as the rings of barbed wire around the course's perimeter testify. Literally next door to the "rich man's game," the Kolkata slums are home to those a lot less fortunate.

"When I played in the Indian Open there in the 1980s, the second hole did not have a proper pin because it was close to the wall and presumably the local kids kept stealing it," recalls former European Tour player Mike Clayton. "Instead of a pin there was a thick pole encased in an old piece of hose. It would not lie straight in the hole -- rather it leaned against the edge of the cup on an angle."

Ironically, this charmingly old-fashioned course, while short on conditioning, is unpretentious, well thought-out, logical and, no doubt, fun to play. "Royal Calcutta," adds Clayton, "is the best of the old-style Asian courses we played on that tour in the 1980s." Such a happy state of affairs, it should be noted, is achieved without flashy white sand bunkers, clichéd water holes (especially the mandatory 18th hole around a man-made lake -- you know, the one with the fountain in the middle) and a famous professional as the "designer."

Shiv Kapor

Speaking of which, let's flash to the floodlit DLF G&CC in New Delhi, where later this month the world's only tri-sanctioned tournament (it is affiliated with the European, Asian and Australasian tours), the Johnnie Walker Classic, will be held. Designed by Arnold Palmer and opened in 1999, this is the typical face of modern golf in India, an essentially American country club catering to the hard-working, rich corporate member with little downtime to play -- hence the floodlights -- but lots of rupees to spend.

"The building of these resorts was always going to be the first step if golf was really to take off in India," says Stuart Campbell, a 52-year-old Scot who is the chief golf executive at the exclusive Aamby Valley City resort near the city of Pune, a two-hour flight from New Delhi. "The government advertises the country as 'Incredible India,' and golf is a big part of that.

"But everything takes time," adds Campbell. "There is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape to cut through. Where something might take six or seven months to achieve in Europe, here it takes six or seven years. The government could do more to help a growing golf industry. At the moment everything has to come into the country, apart from the labor. And taxes can vary between 36-40 percent. Everything is so much more expensive, from balls to clubs to any equipment needed to build and maintain courses. An add-on effect of those extra costs is that the retail section of the golf market essentially does not exist. It just isn't happening. Everything is being bought outside India. If that were to change, it would bring more money into the game and create a bit of employment, too."

Ernie Els

Even though the game has for so long been available to only a privileged elite, India currently has three golfers playing regularly on the European Tour (Jeev Milkha Singh, Jyoti Randhawa and Shiv Kapur), more than 20 plying their trade on the Asian circuit, plus Arjun Atwal on the Nationwide Tour. And with a burgeoning Indian middle class taking more of an interest in the game (it is estimated that those "seekers" and "strivers," to use the local parlance, will grow to represent 16 percent of the population by 2012) hopes are high those numbers will increase exponentially over the next few years.

"I believe we are at just the start," says Kapur, a former All-American at Purdue, "and that the game will continue to expand and grow with more public courses. "Around Delhi there are going to be seven or eight courses built in the next three years," says Kapur. "The new ones will be mostly American-style, designed by the big names like Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. So they are not native-Indian courses.

"There is good and bad in that. The good is that they are being built to international standards, so the kids will be able to play courses like those they will see abroad. But we will be losing the charm of the courses we have already. I'd like to see us taking the national heritage and the natural landscape into account a bit more. At the moment we are not doing that. Courses built on computers are not necessarily the best. But it's a start."

Another heartening aspect of India's golfing future is that the vast numbers of economically disadvantaged will, at least in a small way, have a chance to sample the greatest of games. At Royal Calcutta, for example, the younger members of the 250-strong caddie pool are allowed to play the course for three hours every Tuesday. And two-time All-India Amateur champion Amit Luthra, a member of the Indian Golf Union's junior committee, is spearheading an initiative that has already produced players of promise.

"Through my foundation, we have given 10 young caddies a chance to play and learn the game," Luthra explains. "We pay for their coaching and their clubs, feed them and teach them English. The only criteria we had for entry was that they had to be economically deprived and talented. So far it has been very successful. One of our boys was on the Asia-Pacific team at the age of 14. And another, Rashid Khan, won the recent Faldo Series event in China with a 13-under-par score for 54 holes.

"These young boys are amazing players. They all have wonderful touch from their days chipping and putting around practice greens," Luthra says. "And they all have great hunger. Golf is their way out of poverty, and they work very hard as a consequence. So while the well-to-do kids may have access to better facilities and things like video, these boys make up for that with their desire to succeed."

For the first time, too, world-class golf is coming to India. Last week's Emaar-MGF Indian Masters at Delhi GC marked the European Tour's debut in the world's most populous democracy and further raised the profile of the game in a land where cricket is the other national religion.

"Golf is the fastest growing sport in my country today," claims Singh, who last year became the first Indian to play in the Masters. "The economy is booming, and my feeling is that the game is going to be huge, hopefully at every level.

Indian caddies

"I can see golf being second to cricket, which is as much as you can hope for in India," says Singh, who won two European Tour events in 2006. "The big thing that has changed is the attitude of so many parents. Middle-class families are pushing their children into the game. And the growth of the Indian Tour -- it has about 20 events worth a total of $2 million this year -- gives the best youngsters somewhere to play before they graduate into Asia, Europe and, hopefully, America."

All of which represents a future in which India can play an increasingly high-profile role in the world of golf. For now, however, it is difficult to get the images of Calcutta out of one's head. Much work remains.



Former Caddie Wins Indian Masters By Two

S.S.P. (Shiv Shankar Prasad) Chowrasia

India found itself a fourth European Tour player when S.S.P. (Shiv Shankar Prasad) Chowrasia -- nicknamed "Chipputtsia" because of the quality of his short game -- took the Emaar-MGF Indian Masters at Delhi GC. The 29-year-old former caddie, whose father was a greenkeeper at Royal Calcutta GC, took the title by two shots over Irishman Damien McGrane when a bogey-free closing round of 67 gave him a 72-hole aggregate of 279, nine under par for four circuits of the tight, tree-lined layout. The victory was worth E280,561, easily the largest of the new champion's 10-year professional career.

"At the start of the week, I could never have dreamed of this," Chowrasia admitted. "And right now I'm not sure what I'm going to do. But I'm sure I will continue to play in Asia as well as in Europe. My ultimate aim is to qualify for the PGA Tour in America."

Chowrasia was joined in the top 15 by three compatriots -- Arjun Atwal, Digvijay Singh and Gaurav Ghei -- emphasizing the value of local knowledge on the fast-running 7,014-yard course. For most of the field gathered in the Indian capital, however, three-putting on the grainy greens and penalty shots abounded, although former Masters and British Open champion Mark O'Meara proved the exception. Striking the ball as if in his heyday, the 51-year-old missed only four fairways all week en route to a T-19 finish at one over par.