Golf growing fast in India

The European Tour makes its fourth visit to India this week, adding further impetus to the country’s fastest growing sport.

The European Tour makes its fourth visit to India this week, adding further impetus to the fastest growing sport in the world’s second most populous country.

Cricket may be deeply ingrained in the sporting culture of the subcontinent but golf is in the ascendency and The European Tour has a key role to play in the development of the sport across the country.

The Avantha Masters, jointly sanctioned by The European Tour, Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) and the Asian Tour, represents the pinnacle, and the explosion of interest is being felt all the way through society, as illustrated by Tomasz Gudzowaty’s brilliant portrayal of “Urban Golf in India”, a photographic story of boys from the slums of Mumbai who have fashioned makeshift clubs from iron rods and devised their own variation of the game. Not long ago the only sport played on the streets was cricket but golf is finding its feet.

Golf is growing at a phenomenal rate, spurred on by the development of the PGTI, the arrival of The European Tour and now golf’s inclusion in the Olympics. Cricket still dominates the back pages, but golf is next in line as the media soaks up the global success of home grown players such as Jeev Milhka Singh, Shiv Kapur and SSP Chowrasia. These and many more are seizing the opportunities afforded them through the association with The European Tour and taking golf to a new level.

The rapid progression is highlighted on the ground with 230 courses across the country, an increase of 20-25% over the last decade, and 50 new courses in development. There are an estimated half a million active golfers, a number that is growing fast. And while there are only two recognised public courses, private courses are increasingly being opened for public play and golf’s inclusion in the Olympics has sparked moves for the provision of a public driving range in every city.

Kapur is one of the standard bearers for Indian golf, at the forefront of the game’s development in his home country and carrying it onto the international stage.

“Seven or eight years ago when I was thinking about turning professional I was still in college and my parents didn’t think it was a good career move because the local tour in India was so small,” he said. “When you have to stand on your own two feet it’s not that easy. But now the local tour has grown and now you get tournaments like this week’s Avantha Masters.

“The kids get really excited about coming out and seeing us play for such big money. It is a great boost for golf and the juniors who strive to be where we are. Golf has grown a lot and it is the fastest growing sport in the country. In the next five years there are more than 50 or 60 new golf courses due to open so golf is growing at a fast pace.”

Much of that is down to the work of Guatam Thapar, President of the PGTI since its launch in 2006 and Chairman and CEO of Avantha, this week’s tournament sponsors. In the first three years of his stewardship, prize money on the PGTI increased by more than 250% and this growth was recognised with the induction of the PGTI to the International Federation of PGA Tours in July 2009.

“Gauthum Thapar is probably the most important man in Indian golf at the moment,” said Singh. “He is supports the Indian Tour, he owns Avantha and he is very rich man. There are a few billionaires in India who really support the game and that is great for us because they want to see golf grow in India.”

The arrival of The European Tour and success of home players is helping raise golf’s profile in a country passionate about sport. Arjun Atwal was the first Indian to win on The European Tour, taking the Malaysian Open title in 2003, and he has been followed by Singh and Chowrasia. Indeed, Chowrasia’s victory in the first European Tour co-sanctioned event in India in 2008 highlighted what can be achieved with the heart-warming story of the son of the local greenkeeper taking the title.

“Having the Tour in India has been good for the local players to rub shoulders with the best players,” continued Kapur. “It is a great opportunity for them. The 20 or so local players get to play in a European Tour field and play for €1.8million. SSP (Chowrasia) is a great example – he won the first co-sanctioned event here in India and he got a three year exemption on The European Tour. For the India players and some of the Asian Tour players it is a great stepping stone to build on. All of us growing up, we dreamt of playing on The European Tour one day. Having The European Tour in India is such a great boost for golf in our country and in Asia.”

The future is bright for the sport and golf’s inclusion in the Olympics will only give further fuel to the game’s development. Singh, whose father Milkha Singh – “the Flying Sikh” – was a renowned sprinter, is relishing the impact this will have.

“You can’t overstate the impact that the Olympic decision will have on golf,” he said. “Countries all over the world will sit up and take notice of that and there will be a lot more money coming into golf. Golf in the Olympics will have a huge impact in India.

“We need to build more public driving ranges and more public courses so that the common man can give it a go. There are plans to do that – since golf was reinstated as an Olympic sport I am sure that our Sports Minister and the Government are keen to do that.

“The European Tour has come into India at the right time – it is a growing market so there are benefits for both parties. The Tour can do a lot commercially in a market like that and our players can benefit from the experience of playing on a Tour that has the best players in the world playing regularly.”

Further developments have also been made with the first Challenge Tour event co-sanctioned with the PGTI taking place last month, hosted by Singh. And in a perfect illustration of how well home players are progressing, Gaganjeet Bhullar became the first Indian to win on the Challenge Tour after triumphing by one shot at the season-opening Gujarat Kensville Challenge in what was the first men’s golf event to be played in Western India.

There is a collective will to build the game throughout India with The European Tour playing a key role and this week’s Avantha Masters, with its 20% increase in prize money from 2010, is another solid foundation block in that building process.