Shona A Singh
There are so many images that come to mind when you think of India golf. A young caddie professional teeing off on the first hole of a tournament in Chandigarh barefoot, Ali Sher rising from the ranks to become the first Indian professional to lift the Indian Open trophy and then to triumph again two years later, the alluring 'bushes' of the Delhi golf club with the peacocks dancing in attendance, Jeev Milkha Singh winning his first tournament, the Philippine Classic on the TDC Tour to the present day when Indian professionals rule the ranking and are a force to reckon with in Asia and Europe.
It has been a long journey for a sport that is so young.
Indian Golf has a mysticism and charm, a blend of colonialism with the modern world. And it all start with amateur golf, the Indian Golf Union which was founded in 1955 and run out of the Royal Calcutta Golf Course, the second oldest golf course in the world outside the British Isles, instituted in 1829. In 1957 the Assistant professionals and caddies were given training in teaching and club repairs by the head professional of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, George Willard. By this time most of the amateurs playing the sport were Indian but there was a differentiation between the 'gentlemen' golfers and 'caddie' golfers, as the latter who took up the game after caddying, were referred to.
In 1964 the Indian Open was established and won by Britisher Peter Thomson and one of the country's best golfers ever to have played, amateur Billoo Sethi, became the first Indian to win it a year later, in 1965.
In 1977 amateur golfer Simran Singh, fresh off his win at the Sri Lankan Amateur, decided to turn professional. He was the first 'gentleman' to do so, eliciting harsh treatment from the existing body of professionals who felt he would limit their earnings by joining their ranks. However, it set the ball rolling for a whole new future for Indian golf.
In a letter dated March 1978 AWG MacIntyre, the Managing Director sent out personal invites to play the first Dunlop Invitational Golf Championship at the Delhi Golf Course from 13-16 April, 1978 which was by invitation only and specified that they would "not be paying any expenses other than the prize money".
The tournament was eventually won by Rohtas Singh and he took home rupees five thousand as prize money while second placed Ram Dayal had to be content with three thousand. The best score of the day took home two hundred rupees which was increased to three hundred in the final round. In the Wills Masters Open Golf Championship, played at the Royal Calcutta golf club later that year, Noni won five thousand rupees for first place, while Jamshed earned rupees three thousand and three hundred for finishing second.
But things started moving in the right direction for Indian professional golf.
On February 22, 1984 Simran Singh wrote to the Secretary of the Indian Golf Union "on behalf of gentlemen and other ranks of the Professional Golfers of India about the formation of the Indian Professional Golfers Association." He goes on to say that it had become necessary to form the IPGA and manage our own affairs. Though the idea was not new and had been discussed in meetings with RK Pitamber, Raj Bir Chopra, Bandi Lall, Billoo Sethi and some other leading golfers, it had been shelved as they felt that the time was not right. "This was in fact due to not having enough gentlemen professionals who could run the PGA effectively and also not enough professional tournaments." However, as a number of young amateurs turned professional in 1984 and the number of tournaments increased there was "every likelihood of more amateurs joining the ranks and more professional tournaments coming up."
Eventually, on March 29, 1988 the Professional Golfers Association of India was registered as a Society with the Registrar of Societies, Delhi Administration.
And Simran Singh was right. Jyoti Randhawa's cousins, Manvir and Raghujeet Randhawa and Phil Pilling were amongst the first youngsters to join. Ajai Gupta, Uttam Singh Mundy and Gaurav Ghei followed. In early 1993, Jeev Milkha Singh turned professional followed by Amritinder Singh and Vivek Bhandari. A year later, Jyoti Randhawa represented India in the Asian Games and announced his professional status. A new surge of talented and focussed Indian professionals had emerged and the world was their stage.
No longer content with just playing in India, they ventured abroad with the TDC Tour, which was played in Malaysia. It consisted of a few tournaments, offering US$50,000-US$100,000 as prize money, back-to-back for two months. It was like a small family, all the players, some with their wives would head out to Malaysia for a couple of months and play one event after the other living our of their suitcases, discovering new destinations and learning about other languages and cultures.
Their skills developed and contrary to what they had been told while growing up, most realized that they could not only compete but win at the international level. Jeev won the Philippine Classic and the Asian Matchplay Championship in 1995 while in India, Gaurav Ghei won the US$ 500,000 Gadgil Western Masters and his winners cheque of US $80,750 was the largest ever for an Indian sportsman.
And they never stopped. In 2002 Jyoti became the first Indian to win the Asian Tour Order of Merit while Arjun Atwal followed a year later. Jeev topped the Order of Merit in 2006 and 2008 while playing on the European Tour as well. In 2002 Arjun Atwal became the first Indian professional to win a European Tour event, a feat also achieved by Jeev and SSP Chowrasia.
Youngsters followed. Gurbaaz Mann, Sujjan Singh, Anirban Lahiri, Gaganjeet Bhullar, Ajeetesh Sandhu, Abhijeet Singh Chadha, Rahil Gangjee, Shiv Kapur and Rashid Khan set an example for other to emulate. They continue to make news and Lahiri recently qualified for his next venture, playing golf on the European Tour, and almost won the qualifying school in the process. And they are a force to reckon with on the Asian Tour.
However, only Arjun Atwal and Daniel Chopra have qualified and won events on the PGA Tour. Though every Indian professionals goals and dreams include a major championship or PGA Tour wins, it still remains a distant reality. Having come this far, they now need easier access to the PGA Tour and playing conditions equalling those that they find when faced with the ultimate golf tour in the world to take the next step.