Try talking to Champika Sayal about her personal life, and all you get is golf, more golf and, at last, a short recollection of her childhood—although, even then, she was playing golf.
Now 44, with three grown-up children, the sport Sayal picked up as a 12-year-old using hand-me-down clubs and stray balls is what keeps her going.
In her own words, “I’ve dedicated my life to golf.”
It’s fitting and understandable, then, that women’s golf in India revolves around Sayal. Secretary general of the Women’s Golf Association of India for professional players, she is the force behind spreading the sport among Indianwomen—and bringing world attention to it, those who know her say.
Her biggest achievement as an administrator so far has been to organize the first-ever women’s Indian Open, just held in March at the DLF Golf & Country Club in Gurgaon. Professional players from 17 nations competed for an impressive $100,000 (Rs42 lakh); next year’s prize money will be doubled.
The India Open is not just about an international pro tournament coming to the country. It’s about the world recognizing that Indian women’s golf has matured from sari-clad, parasol-clutching socialites putting on the greens to young, confident women playing against the best for money.
It’s also a metaphor for the progress of business women, gaining green ground in an elite sport known for helping seal deals.
“It’s not a little thing… bringing top international players to India, bringing sponsors to the women’s circuit,” said octogenarian golfer Sita Rawlley, winner of Indian sports’ top honour, the Arjuna Award, in 1978. “Champika will go down in history for what she has done.”
For years, as secretary of the women’s cell of the Indian Golf Union, Sayal helped spread amateur golf for women. She still does that, but in 2006, she also helped found the Women Golf’s Association to take talented players to the next level in the professional circuit.
Others have to do her bragging for her.
“Obstacles, stumbling blocks were put up by others, but she saw through them,” said Madhu Brar, mother of Irina Brar, who is now India’s top pro woman golfer. Irina was discovered by Sayal when she was a precocious 10-year-old. “Champi is a visionary.”
In Chandigarh, Sayal spotted Irina Brar, who at the age of four earned a medal in a figure-skating tournament. When told the child played tennis but no golf, Sayal asked, “Why not?” recalls the player’s mother.
Sayal worked on the younger Brar after that, arguing there was a shelf life to a tennis player’s career, while a golfer could play competitively till old age. “Champi was very encouraging, took Irina to (female player) Nonika Qureshi, and motivated her to take up golf,” the star golfer’s mother said.
Parneeta Garewal was 12 years old and riding a scooter when Sayal first saw her. “I was so impressed with the child that I thought she had to be introduced to golf,” she explained.
Similarly, she took Vaishavi Sinha, a member of the Indian women’s golf team at the Doha Asiad, under her wing when the player was only nine years old.
Sayal openly admits poaching on other sports for players; two girls have been lured away from basketball and are being trained to play golf competitively. “I’m hoping the 2016 Olympics will include golf as a discipline, we’ll have a women’s team ready by then,” she says. There are only a handful of pros now, but Sayal has set herself a target of 100 women in the pro tournaments by 2009.
She’s inspired by the “Korean model”, she says: the Koreans stopped participating in international meets 10 years ago, and concentrated on building a talent pool.
“They are leaders today,” Sayal says.
Daughter of a military man, Sayal was exposed to golf early on the army’s courses, watching others play. When she took to swinging the club, it was with clubs rejected by her elders. She ferreted out lost balls from behind thickets on the fringes of the course.
“Golf balls in those days had to be imported and duties made them terribly expensive. We weren’t exactly underprivileged but golf equipment wasn’t available in the canteen,” she said. “Today’s children are so much better equipped, and their parents are so much more aware.”
On a recent summer morning, Sayal met with a woman at the Indian Golf Union office at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. The woman was the mother of a teenage golfer—“a talented youngster”, Sayal later said—and felt she’d been given a short shrift at a local tournament.
Sayal responded that every course followed rules outside the official guidelines. Sayal promised to look into that particular club’s fairway laws.
After the woman left, Sayal explained: “Study of golfing rules is education in itself.”
Sayal sees a strong connect between education and golf. There are lots of math calculations; a lot of rules to learn and a good education can help a player use these rules to one’s advantage, she says.
“That’s why we need lots of educated ladies taking up golf in India.”
It’s this faith in education— and the fact that golf infrastructure wasn’t as developed 15 years ago—that made Sayal encourage her three children to focus on academics over golf. All her children now work or study abroad.
“As a parent, I had to make a choice; golf is a game one can start at any age,” Sayal said.
Today, with infrastructure more advanced, Sayal is more confident about working with children. At the Delhi Golf Club, four senior coaches are training 200 children—with equal batches of girls and boys; underprivileged children qualify for free lessons. The best 50 or 60 will be coached in a special “camp of excellence” to take them forward.
When Sayal represented India for the first time in 1981 as an 18-year-old at the Queen Siriket Cup in Japan, other teams were “shocked” by the Indian equipment—used golf balls and torn golf bags.
This sorry state continued till as recently as 2003; players had to fix export certificates issued by the customs department officials on their equipment before leaving for an overseas tournament.
In 2000, when Sayal left with 27 children with 27 golf sets for Malaysia, the same process was followed. “Those were harrowing moments with the customs people in Delhi, it was an ordeal,” she said.
Long-time golfer Rawlley recalls warning Sayal years ago that the road ahead would be filled with obstacles, and being told, “I’m well prepared”.
Ask Sayal about it, and she credits a stint in Kolkata in the 1980s: “There was no water, no power, no kerosene, and young children to take care of. She also recalls her encounter with stark poverty at Mother Teresa’s Prem Daan centre, where she volunteered. She says: “The experience changed me”.
Now she is using it to good effect to change the face of women’s golfing in India.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org