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The Blade Runners

The club's on an upward swing. And corporates don't want to be left out.

The Blade Runners
Pradeep Mandhani
The Blade Runners
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
A one-square-inch dimpled ball whacked around a huge expanse of green spread over acres of a landscaped golf course can make the grown-up break down in tears. But guys like Jyoti Randhawa, Jeev Milkha Singh, Arjun Atwal, Gaurav Ghei, Harmeet Kahlon and Arjun Singh, all boys from affluent backgrounds, have no problems playing this game. So much so that this group of gifted Indian professional golfers is on the verge of breaking into the highest class of professional golf.

Indian professional golf has truly come of age, thanks to some sparkling performances and feats on the green this year (see box). In recent weeks, it has been on an upswing: a new star-studded corporate event called the Madhavrao Scindia tournament was born; the Tatas entered pro-golf; Randhawa and Atwal occupied the first and third positions in Asia; Jeev Milkha and Kahlon just missed out on the US PGA and European Tours respectively. Even amateurs like Shiv Kapur and Simarjeet Singh have brought home laurels—Kapur became the first Indian in 20 years to win the Asian Games gold medal at Busan, and Simarjeet is the first to win the prestigious Sri Lankan International amateur event three times in a row.

In many ways, the young man who sparked off dreams for the Indian golfer was Jeev Milkha Singh, son of star runner Milkha Singh. Jeev wanted to be an athlete, but took to the green, inspired by his father who moved to golf in his after-athletics years. That was then. Since then, Jeev has won more than a couple of million dollars in the last three seasons and has played alongside the very best in the world.

Randhawa, son of a golf-mad army officer (more than half of the 200-odd courses in India are managed by the Services), could have been into any sport. He says he was "fairly good at swimming and athletics, and loved squash, shooting and riding motorcycles". His father encouraged him to take to golf and he started liking it after winning a "few (junior) events". Randhawa's efforts have paid off handsomely: last week, the reticent golfer who loves his 1,000 cc motorbike as much as he loves his sport became the first Indian to top the Asian Order of Merit in pro-golf. (This, after missing out on a clutch of events following a motorbike accident that fractured his collarbone.) Next year Randhawa can play in Asia and Japan, and has a direct entry into the British Open and the World Championships. Atwal, with his business family background, turned to golf while in the US for his studies. Back in India in the mid-1990s, he turned pro, but it was only around 1997-98 that he began hitting newspaper headlines. He made it big in 1999 when he won the Indian Open. Then there's Ghei, who in 1995 became the first Indian to win an Asian PGA event.

The success of so many stars is intrinsically linked to the growth of professional golf in India over the years. From less than a crore in prize money about six years ago, the stakes in India have now gone up to more than Rs 2.2 crore. Besides, India also hosts two US $3,00,000 events, both part of the Asian PGA Tour. Just as Indian cricketers are reputed to be unbeatable on home soil, Indian golfers too have an enviable reputation on home courses: they have won each of the last four Hero Honda Masters in India—Randhawa was the champion twice, while Atwal and Kahlon picked up the winner's cheque once each. Indians also won the Indian Open four times in the last five years—Feroze Ali, Atwal, Randhawa and Vijay Kumar. Jeev has won four times on foreign soil, while Randhawa and Atwal have one title each to their credit.

Another reason for golf's rising curve is the number of new designer courses coming up in India. Delhi and its neighbourhood, for example, has almost a dozen such courses, all of them packed to capacity on weekends."The number of amateur golfers is the true indication of how golf has taken off in a big way," says Digraj Singh, a former national champion, and now director, sales and marketing, Tiger Sports Marketing, who hold the rights to the Indian PGA Tour. Add to all this the increased media attention. Dailies like Hindu, Hindustan Times and Telegraph sponsor professional tournaments, and Outlook is the official newsmagazine of the Indian Tour.

But this growth isn't only among the privileged class. Today it is not uncommon to see locals in slippers fashion tree branches into impromptu golf clubs and strike old balls near the Lucknow Golf Club in Martinpurwa, the hometown of the current Indian Open champion, Vijay Kumar, one of India's leading names on the domestic tour since 1994. He values his career prize money at more than Rs 2-3 crore. Mukesh Kumar, the current reigning deity on Indian greens and caddies' idol, picked up the game while living next to the course in Mhow. Now a topper on the Merit list for two years, he is on his way to completing a hat-trick having won seven of 14 tournaments this season.

For the last six years, the topper on Indian Order of Merit has made at least Rs 10 lakh from prize money. Last year, Kumar, besides his earnings of more than Rs 17.5 lakh, also took home an additional cheque of Rs 10 lakh for topping the Merit. In the last season, more than 60 players earned Rs 1 lakh-plus each in prize money, 28 crossed Rs 2.5 lakh, eight won more than Rs 6 lakh and two players crossed the Rs 10 lakh mark. "These are awesome figures," says Rahil Gangjee, a Calcutta-based professional who won a title in his rookie year last season. "These are only the starting figures," adds Digvijay Singh, another professional. "The Indian Tour has become a launching pad for bigger tours, like Asian PGA. After that there is Japan, Europe and everyone's dream tour, the US PGA." The Indian tour has also become much sought-after. Each year there are nearly 200-300 professionals lining up at the qualifying school for the 40-odd Tour Cards, which grant them playing rights to the Indian PGA Tour. "There are players from Nepal and Bangladesh," says Sampath Chari, tournament director on the Indian PGA Tour.

No wonder corporates are sniffing a great marketing opportunity in golf. Says Brandon de Souza, a former pro and now president of Tiger Sports Marketing: "The emergence of corporate golf with as many as 40-odd tournaments each year indicates that big spenders have started to realise that golf has huge business potential. Soon more business will be conducted here on the greens than boardrooms," he prophesies. After seeing the roster of amateur and corporate golfers at last week's Madhavrao Scindia Golf Tournament, only the nai#ve will doubt his statement. Royalty rubbed shoulders with CEOs, and presidents and politicians exchanged notes at a golf course, which doubles up as a luxury holiday destination as well.

Clearly, with golf offering more than any other sport, including cricket at the domestic level, the willow could soon be edged out of prime positions on newspages by the club. Ask the guys who wield these clubs and they will pump their fist and say, "Yes, the day is not far."
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