Kolkata: Until five years ago, Chikkarangappa would run around the Eagleton Golf Resort, on the outskirts of Bangalore, retrieving strayed balls for recreational players. Teeing off against them was just a dream for this lanky lad.
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Today, the 16-year-old has gone beyond that humble aspiration, becoming one of the most promising young golfers in India.
Vijay Divecha, a trainer at Eagleton, sensed his talent and encouraged him to start playing in 2004, recalls Chikka, as he is known to friends and family. For his parents, who have three children and farm on an acre of land in Bidadi, 30km from Bangalore, it was almost impossible to afford his golf training, says Chikka.
But thanks to support from Eagleton, which allowed him to use its facilities for free, he is now the country’s No. 1 golfer in the under-18 category.
Chikka’s success is an indication of the sport’s growth over the last few years.
In 1955, there were only six golf courses in India, whereas now there are 194, according to The Indian Golf Union (Tigu). Yet, golf predominantly remains the preserve of elite clubs and army cantonments, says Gaurav Ghosh, a member of the governing council of Tigu, the national regulator for the sport. “But young players such as Chikka, Ashbeer Saini and Gaganjeet (Singh) Bhullar, who have come up from humble backgrounds, are proving that you don’t need rich parents to become a professional golfer,” he says.
Fifteen-year-old Saini from Kapurthala in Punjab is the son of a sports officer in the railways. He has been playing golf for the past five years. Bhullar, too, is from Kapurthala, and is now one of the top professionals in India.
Even five years ago, hardly 40 children would take part in junior-level tournaments, according to Satish Aparajit, secretary general of Tigu. “Now we have around 300 youngsters training at Chandigarh’s National Golf Academy alone,” says Aparajit. “It’s only now that we can see how much talent India has.”
Tigu is also trying to introduce golf in schools through adaptations such as Go-Go Golf and Snag Golf, which are designed to make the sport more popular among young people. These variants aren’t played on golf courses but in rooms of around 2,000 sq. ft using plastic balls and clubs.
But what could make a big difference to the sport in India is its inclusion in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With its sights firmly set on the Olympics, Tigu is expanding the National Golf Academy. “Our plan is to have at least one training centre under the academy in every zone of the country,” says Aparajit. “The aim is to build a contingent of strong players before the 2016 Olympics.”
Inclusion in the Games could lead to substantial administrative changes, says A.S.V. Prasad, a director at the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). “Tigu isn’t recognized by IOA yet, and for it to be recognized as the national governing body for golf, it would have to establish that state golf associations support it,” he says.
Tigu is currently supported by some 14 “affiliates” across the country, and states such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tripura have shown interest in joining the union, according to Aparajit.
Ghosh believes that for golf to comply with IOA’s requirements, it cannot remain confined to a few clubs. “The sport must expand and this will lead to more democratization,” says Ghosh. “The success of players such as Chikka, Saini and Bhullar will increase the sport’s popularity even among those who thought golf was beyond their means.”
“The democratization of golf” is likely to happen in the same way as cricket, according to sports historian Boria Majumdar.
Winning the 1983 World Cup was the “turning point” for cricket. “Till then, very few people from the weaker sections of the society would take interest in the sport, but the win turned the sport into a national obsession,” says Majumdar. “A similar thing could happen to golf as well if Indians did well in big international events.”