AS a sport, it has everything going for it. Big money, visual appeal, high-profile patrons, drama and excitement. Two years ago, that was what brought golf to India. The prize money in 1994 touched a high of Rs 54 lakh. Several ambitious golf course projects, one of which even saw golf legend Greg Norman visit India, were teed off. High-profile names like ace runner Milkha Singh's son, Jeev Milkha Singh; half-Indian, half-Swede Daniel Chopra and Gaurav Ghei were touted as Indian challenges on the Omega, Asian, and the US tours.
But that early promise in the game soon petered off. The Indian Golf Union (IGU), a body governing the sport in India, has not been overly active in promoting it. Says Harji Malik, golf columnist and front-runner in women's golf: "It's not a dynamic body. When the IGU was started, there were people completely devoted to the game." The newly-formed Professional Golfers Association (PGA) is yet to find its feet.
It was then left to the corporate sector to step in and promote the game. The APGA, the largest prize money tournament ($500,000) in India, was believed to have put the game firmly on the Asian map. Only the next year, it was cancelled, ostensibly because of dengue, even though the epidemic was fading out by that time. The real reason was that its main sponsor, Gadgil Western, pulled out of the tournament due to internal differences. SIEL, the other sponsor of the game, though committed to increasing the prize money for its tournament (the SIEL PGA held at the Army Golf course in Delhi), itself ran into financial trouble. It's companies like the Mahindras, which are financially sound, that are increasing participation in the game. The Indian tour, worth Rs 1.3 crore in '96, is poised for an increase up to Rs 1.7 crore in '97. Yet corporate interest in the game has not extended to sponsorship for players.
Instead, what most companies are concentrating on is corporate golf where sponsors invite chairmen and managing directors to play at an amateur level. Not only does the company get a chance to entertain People Who Matter, it also gets the right mileage out of every rupee spent. But such efforts have done nothing to help golf itself. So it is with the Delhi Golf Club, which has a membership list any society hostess would envy and an even longer list of a who's who waiting to be part of the hallowed club. Says a PGA member, on condition of anonymity: "There's been little help from the golfing fraternity though even a word from any one of them would do wonders in promoting the game." This has left professional golfers, a relatively new breed in the country, without much sponsorship.
Among them is Jeev Milkha Singh, who's had somewhat of a poor season. Also Daniel Chopra and other players. Gaurav Ghei, the only Indian to have made it to the British Open, is one of the fortunate few to have a sponsor. Tiger Corporation, which had announced plans to manage the careers of some of the pro golfers, dropped that part of their services. Explains its CEO, Brandon de Souza: "For player management, the player has to do well for it to be worth it. For a player to play 20 weeks abroad the cost is as much as $20,000, plus airfare. We put in about Rs 50 lakh but the returns weren't as exciting."
Many of these players, according to De Souza, should not even be playing abroad but honing their skills at home. Says Ghei, the only player to cross Rs 10 lakh in earnings in India: "The competition's just got tougher. It's not as if we're playing badly." Ajay Gupta, who turned pro 13 years ago, analyses the lull in the performance of ace Indian golfers and says: "The first year on Omega these boys did very well. Hence, complacency set in. Then they got this kick which is now making them work harder."
Hard work apart, golf desperately needs a superstar which would attract the masses to the game. While Singh, Chopra and Ghei are the game's best bets, Arjun Singh and Arjun Atwal too hold promise. Shivin Kwatra could provide the much-needed glamour to the game. Agrees De Souza, whose company has ambitious plans for golf: "The game needs to be jazzed up if the crowds are to come in." One Tiger Woods is all we need, the rest will follow.