Gurgaon: Golf’s superstars are heading to India in increasing numbers, but the attraction goes beyond appearance fees and prize money.
As some of the game’s finest battled it out at last week’s Johnnie Walker Classic, top players were also busy striking lucrative deals to design new courses here.
High tee: The Gulmarg Golf Club in Kashmir claims to be the world’s highest.
Colin Montgomerie and Vijay Singh are two big stars to cash in on the trend, adding their names to a who’s who of golfers with course interests in the booming country.
“There’re certain meetings this week while I’m here and we hope to do that,” Montgomerie said, when asked if he planned to design courses in India. “We look forward to it.”
Singh, a Fijian of Indian heritage, said he already had plans to design a signature course in the tourist state of Goa. “Hopefully I can get a lot more opportunities to design golf courses here,” he said.
“I’m doing a few more in the Asian region, but here in India, that’s the first one and probably after that we’ll see if we can get some more.”
The Classic was held on the Arnold Palmer-designed DLF Golf and Country Club here, while Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman have also charted courses and Nick Faldo and Ernie Els have layouts in the works.
It’s a trend that’s already been seen in China, another golf hot spot where the giant Mission Hills resort has courses designed by no fewer than 10 of the sport’s greats.
Rishi Narain, an Indian golf course development consultant, said star players would be paid between $1 million (Rs4crore) and $2 million to put their name to a new layout.
He said the industry had seen a sudden burst of activity with 30-40 courses under construction, and another 10 expected in each of the next few years.
“Suddenly there’s a lot of activity, in the past year,” he said.
But concerns remain about the inaccessibility of golf to ordinary people in India, where the sport is largely a pursuit of the rich.
While the country already has around 180 courses, only a tiny number are public, said Golf Digest India magazine’s Sharad Kohli. “We need more public courses rather than designer courses,” he said.
“It’s great that we have these international courses, but what India actually needs more of is public courses. A lot of these courses have private membership, and most Indians can’t afford the membership or green fees.”
Singh, who is self-taught, voiced the same sentiment, saying India badly needed more public facilities. “You need a lot more golf courses. You need golf courses where normal guys can pay and play. That’s very important,” he said.
“And you’ve got to have academies where young kids can go and learn to play. It starts off from building more golf courses in the country, that’s the key.”
According to Narain, one of the main difficulties in establishing courses is buying land, which is usually held in small parcels by various families.
“If you want to put together 200 acres, you might have to negotiate with 200 owners,” he said. “It can take up to five or 10 years sometimes.”
Negotiations can turn ugly, as in 2002 when thousands of homes in Chandigarh were knocked down to make way for a golf course. One man died after setting fire to himself in protest, reports said.
India has a long, if limited, golfing history with the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, established in 1829, thought to be the oldest course outside the British Isles. The Gulmarg Golf Club in Kashmir claims to be the world’s highest, while Agra Golf Club has the Taj Mahal as a backdrop.
While golf lags far behind cricket in popularity, a rash of top tournaments including the Johnnie Walker Classic and last month’s Indian Masters has stoked interest.
However, the sport remains strictly off-limits for India’s impoverished masses. More than a quarter of its 1.1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day — the price of a golf ball.