New Delhi: Golf in India is hoping Arjun Atwal’s breakthrough win on the USPGA Tour is a step forward for a sport that could secure a huge future in the rapidly developing country.
Atwal became the first Indian to win a title on the demanding American circuit when he captured the Wyndham Championship in North Carolina on Sunday.
“It is one of India’s finest golfing successes and will inspire people to raise their ambition,” Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) director Padamjit Sandhu told AFP.
“His victory is sure to lift golf’s profile further in India. It is already one of the fastest growing sports in the country.”
There are only 200 recognised golf courses in India according to the Indian Golf Union — one for nearly every six million people.
But the sport is seen as well suited to modern India, as vast new towns and housing developments spring up to cater for the country’s educated and professional middle classes.
Cricket great Kapil Dev, who turned to competitive golf after retiring from cricket in 1994, said golf provided a tempting opportunity for investors willing to build new courses and facilities.
The DLF Golf and Country Club in Gurgaon, a booming satellite town outside Delhi, is one prestigious example of how the sport is being used to promote the aspirational lifestyle sought by many Indians.
The course, designed by former champion Arnold Palmer in 2002, hosts professional international tournaments and acts as the centrepiece of “DLF city” — a complex of luxury houses, offices, schools, hospitals, hotels and shopping malls.
Across India, many similar new developments — including Lavasa, a new hill town being built outside Mumbai — offer golf as a sophisticated leisure activity that is associated with successful business people worldwide.
“There are lot of kids out there who dream about becoming golfers, just as we dreamt about becoming cricketers in our younger days,” Dev, the 1983 cricket World Cup winning captain, said.
“But we need courses, and also driving ranges and putting greens, not only in big cities but also in smaller towns.”
Travel agent Randhir Varma says he is increasingly drawing up golf-specific holiday packages for Indian tourists.
“Earlier, people came asking for packages to Goa and Kerala,” said Varma. “Now they want to know which place has the best golf course.”
Indian golf has come a long way since amateur Biloo Sethi’s Indian Open win in 1965, which remained the country’s lone success in its home event until 1991 when caddie-turned-pro Ali Sher secured the title.
India has thrown up other winners of the Asian Tour Order of Merit with Jyoti Randhawa in 2002, Atwal in 2003 and Jeev Milkha Singh in 2006 and 2008.
Indian golf took a giant leap forward in 2008 when the DLF Golf and Country Club hosted the Johnnie Walker Classic, a European Tour event played in the Asia Pacific region.
The same year, the Indian Masters, held at the historic Delhi Golf Club, featured top golfers like Ernie Els and Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell — but was won by local pro Shiv Chowrasia.
Atwal, 37, told local media after his Wyndham success that winning a major was not an impossible dream for Indian golfers.
“I won’t put a time frame on it, but it is definitely possible,” he told the Times Now channel. “Our players have won across Asia, Japan and Europe. With support from the government and sponsors, anything can be achieved.”
However, he admitted that he did not have an Indian sponsor despite spending 15 years on the professional circuit — a sign that cricket’s total dominance of sport in India left golf with major obstacles to overcome.
“It’s not only about the money, but it will be nice to have a sponsor from my own country,” he said. “It gives a good feeling knowing one of your own is backing you.”