Lean and wiry, with a swagger that suits him, Rashid Khan walks up for the approach shot to the 13th hole at the Delhi Golf Club (DGC). He stands over the ball, loosens his shoulders, and lets rip with a sharp whack that sends the ball soaring in a graceful arc.
In just his second season as a pro, Rashid, 21, has finished this year at second on the Professional Golf Tour of India’s (PGTI’s) order of merit list, behind Shamim Khan, who has more than 15 years of experience. Of the 19 tournaments he has played since January, Rashid made the cut in 18, finished in the top 10 in 14, won one, and made earnings of nearly Rs.49 lakh.
It’s a natural progression—Rashid has dominated the junior and amateur circuits for years with record-margin wins; he led the Indian team to a silver at the 2010 Asian Games; and he is the only player ever to have won back-to-back Faldo Series Asia titles, the continent’s most prestigious talent-spotting contest, run by six-time Major winner Nick Faldo.
But Rashid doesn’t like looking back.
“When I became a pro, I started at the bottom,” he says, “all that fun in the past was done with.”
There is a lot of fun in that past though: A child runs away from school, sneaks into places he is barred from, picks up skills and street-smartness by the truckload, and turns it all into gold—that’s Rashid in a tweet.
Rashid, who knows the best ways to get inside the rarefied boundaries of the Delhi Golf Club—which walls to climb, which hedges to squirm through, where to quickly change into golf clothes and discard his school uniform, and how to then smartly gel with the club members practising their putting.
Barely six years ago, that was Rashid’s morning routine. At 8am sharp, he would leave for school from his crumbling house in a tight squeeze of by-lanes in Nizamuddin, perfectly turned out in his uniform, and a school bag on his shoulders. As soon as he was out of sight of his parents, Rashid would forget school, and make his way to the DGC. Once in, he would spend five hours playing with borrowed clubs and watching others play. Around 1pm, he would head back home in his school uniform, eat lunch, and then leave for the DGC for his official practice session. Rashid’s father had worked at the DGC’s equipment shop, and his uncle Maqbool Khan had started off as a caddie at the club before turning pro in the early 1990s. Maqbool had taken note of the fact that Rashid showed little interest in school, and spent most of his time playing street cricket and had dragged Rashid to DGC when he was 9 to the club’s junior training programme.
“I had no interest in it, it didn’t even look like a sport,” Rashid says. “But soon, I could think of nothing else but golf.”
Rashid’s success is part of an ongoing revolution in golf in India, one which is redefining the sport and gradually eroding its restrictive traditional structures.
“It’s only in India that golf is an elite sport,” says Amit Luthra, who led the Indian golf team that won the country’s first Asian Games gold medal back in 1982. He is also the founder of The Golf Foundation, a Delhi-based organization that helps underprivileged golfers with equipment, training and funding. “We have almost no public courses, and access to the sport is very, very limited.”
India has nearly 200 golf courses, only two of which are open to the public, according to the PGTI. India’s golf clubs are some of its most exclusive organizations, where even the very rich can face a 10-year waiting period for membership. It’s an entrenched culture of impressive vintage—The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), founded in 1829, is considered the oldest golf club outside the UK, where the game originated.
“Though the social divide has been crumbling for about a decade now, the stigma still exists,” Luthra says. “People get stuck with the way someone dresses, their accent, their lack of education or social skills.”
The Golf Foundation had picked up Rashid early on in his amateur career, funding equipment and tournaments both in India and abroad.
Ask Rashid about the socio-economic divides of golf and he turns livid in a snap. “Please don’t talk about caddies turning golfers, or the rich or the poor,” Rashid says. “What are these terms? When you play abroad, does anyone talk of whether you started as a caddy, or from a slum or wherever? A player is a player. Where he comes from is no one’s business.”
There is a difference though. In the US, Europe, and in much of Asia, most golf courses are open to the public, and caddying is a lucrative career. In India, caddies come from slums near golf clubs, and work for little money. A highly rated caddy at the DGC can earn around Rs.20,000 a month. But he will also be the highest-paid caddy in the country—most make no more than Rs.7,000 a month, working five days a week.
“Yes, so access is hard, it takes time,” Rashid says. “but there’s no restriction on anyone playing in a tournament, and if you do well there, things open up, the help comes.”
Rashid is not fond of the conceit that deprivation gives a person competitive edge, but it is this that has been the driving force behind the social transformation of golf—a majority of pro golfers for the last 20 years are either the sons of caddies, or were caddies themselves.
The turning point for Indian golf pivots around a man as slightly-built as Rashid, only smaller, called Ali Sher. In 1991, Sher became the first local pro to win the country’s premier event, the Indian Open. “I started as a caddy, and it was only because a member of the club helped me with equipment and money that I became a golfer,” says Sher, who still plays professionally at 52.
Sher says that scattered acts of philanthropy was the only source of aid for underprivileged golfers till recently.
The Bangalore-based golfer C.K. Muniyappa, 35, agrees with Sher. Muniyappa, whose parents worked as wage labourers at the Karnataka Golf Association’s (KGA’s) flagship course in Bangalore in the early 1990s, began working as a ball boy at the club when he was 7. For five years he collected stray balls for Rs.2 a day, before becoming a caddy.
In his spare time, Muniyappa would swing away with improvised wooden sticks: “I would see a player swing, and I could imitate it really well,” he says. Then a KGA member saw Muniyappa practising and gave him two of his old irons. In 1997, at the age of 20, a completely self-taught Muniyappa turned pro. “The first five-six years I struggled a lot, I would play six-seven tournaments a year, make around Rs.1 lakh, which barely covered my costs,” he says. “So the rest of the time I earned my living as a caddy.”
In 2009, his persistence paid off, and he shot to fame by winning the Indian Open. The reward? A purse of Rs.93 lakh, a two-year entry into European and Asian Tour events, and a lifetime membership at the KGA.
Muniyappa says that soon after his win, clubs also started changing their policies, and letting caddies use the course for free a couple of times a week. Most clubs now also reserve pro bono spots for caddies or their children to take part in training programmes. “I was lucky,” he says, “There was little support. It was hard to make a living being a pro because there weren’t many tournaments and the prize money was low. All that has changed now.”
Indeed, the biggest drive for India’s aspiring golfers came from the explosion of golf as a competitive sport here. The PGTI only began operations in 2006, with a total prize purse of Rs.2.6 crore, and only one tournament sanctioned by the lucrative Asian Tour, says Uttam Kumar Mundy, a former pro who is now the PGTI’s director of operations. “Now we have a calendar of 30 tournaments, four of which are part of the Asian Tour, one is part of the European tour, and we have a total prize of Rs.8.5 crore. The changes have been drastic.”
Sher says he wishes he was starting off now—“You can turn pro and make your money from the game if you are good enough now. No one needs to help you.”
The grass is green
This is where golf’s future in India lies: With 14-year-old Tutul Ali, the son of an RCGC caddy, who finished 23rd in the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships this July in the US. For the last five years, Ali has been part of a programme run by former Indian No. 1 Indrajit Bhalotia, whose ProTouch Golf Academy funds training, equipment, touring and schooling for caddy’s children in Kolkata.
The future lies with seven-year-old Shubham Jaglan, the son of a milkman from Israna village in Haryana, who learnt to play from watching YouTube videos when he was 5, and has now won more than 50 tournaments in India, finishing 20th at The Callaway Junior World Golf Championships. Luthra’s The Golf Foundation was so impressed by his skill, they fought for his playing rights at the DGC and moved his family to Delhi.
As the next generation is poised to bring in even more radical changes, for Rashid, the biggest challenge yet of his career awaits. For the past two seasons, Rashid has tried and failed to qualify for the Asian Tour. Few golfers in India have the talent or the means to graduate to the Asian level and stay afloat. For tournaments in India, Muniyappa says, golfers can spend as little as Rs.5,000 per tournament for travelling, living, and entry expenses. On the Asian Tour, that goes up to Rs.1 lakh per tournament.
“If you don’t make it to the top 40 in an Asian Tour event, you will start losing money,” Luthra says. “If you don’t make the cut at an event, then that’s a lakh straight down the tube.”
The thin safety buffers don’t concern Rashid. “I can’t sit here and think of money, sponsorship, and all that stuff,” he says. “I just need to go and play.”