The Hero Indian Open starting today, which has moved south for the first time in 48 years to the Karnataka Golf Association (KGA) course in Bangalore, has been a game changer for golf in the country.
The best example was the 1991 edition of the event in Delhi (it has also been played at Gurgaon and in Kolkata). The man under the spotlight, Ali Sher. It all boiled down to self-belief. Till that moment, when Ali embraced the biggest prize in Indian golf, no countryman actually believed they could win the national open faced with competition from seasoned, battle-hardened professionals from golfing powerhouses like the US, Japan and Australia. So the Indians in the field would sneak wistful glances at the large but elegant piece of silver and quietly go about trying to make a decent pay cheque.
Along came “Ali Baba” (as his friends call him). Having learnt his golf at The Delhi Golf Club (DGC), Ali’s game was tailor-made for the venue—not long but almost never veering off course, and a killer short game. “I had a lot of confidence in my chipping and putting,” remembers Ali, now in his 50s.
On the par-three seventh hole in the second round, the first of Ali’s playing partners hit the flag stick with his tee shot. The second golfer’s ball lipped out of the hole. Not wanting to be outdone, Ali pulled out a three-iron instead of his usual four and holed his shot from 184 yards (around 170m) out. When he two-putted for birdie from 40ft on the 18th two days later, Ali was catapulted into a different zone. So was Indian golf.
“That win was big,” he says in his understated style. “I came on TV. The newspapers wrote about me. I used to travel by bus from Nizamuddin to the golf course. The driver and conductor got to know me. After that, I didn’t have to pay the fare.”
There were bigger payouts. Some time later, when he was in Japan for the Dunlop cup, a fax arrived at his hotel. Ali had been given honorary membership of the club where his early playing implements had been tree branches fashioned into makeshift golf clubs. The family house was renovated, brothers and sisters were married off with the Rs.10-odd lakh that came his way.
Among those who read the newspaper reports was Jyoti Randhawa, an upcoming amateur based out of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. “I showed the report to Diggy (Digvijay Singh, now fellow pro and brother-in-law) and we both thought, ‘If he can do it…’ Ali Sher inspired us,” says Randhawa. Mindsets changed all around. Caddies who would clamour to pair up with foreign pros started to favour Indian golf bags.
Ali won again two years later, and this time it was more personal. “Some people thought 1991 was a fluke. I didn’t let that get me down and won again in 1993. That shut up everybody.”
Change of guard
Randhawa turned pro a year later. When he and others like Jeev Milkha Singh and Gaurav Ghei got the better of Ali on the domestic tour, confidence levels among the country’s young pros went up several notches. With wins at the 1998 and 1999 Hero Honda Masters, Randhawa was on his way to stardom when he teed up at the 2000 Wills Indian Open at the Classic Golf Resort in Gurgaon. He had Trevor Immelman for company in the last round and then went on to beat another South African, Sammy Daniels, in a play-off for his first Indian Open title.
After a bear hug from his father, Randhawa declared, “You know, I may win the British Open some day but this is always going to be on top of my list.”
Emotions may have got the better of him at the time but the Indian Open does mean much to Randhawa. He won it again in 2006 and defended his title a year later at the DGC, becoming the only Indian to win the tournament thrice, the same number as Aussie great Peter Thomson, who is credited with helping set up the Indian Open in 1964. “The national open of your country is special and having won it thrice makes it that much sweeter. Your name on the trophy stays forever and you become part of history. Other tournaments come and go,” says Randhawa.
His game is not as sharp now, since he’s been preoccupied with moving to a villa on the outskirts of Gurgaon. He was running out of space in his penthouse there as his cache of toys grows from motorbikes and guns to scuba-diving gear, the latest activity to grab his attention. “Work hard, play hard,” he says.
The current favourites
Till recently, India’s best golfers came from either Kolkata or the northern belt. That changed when C. Muniyappa won the 2009 Hero Indian Open. What a run that was for the KGA product from a decade earlier, when he was desperately looking for an equipment sponsor to the DLF Golf and Country Club, where he pocketed close to $200,000 (around Rs.1 crore now), enough to buy a golf store. A lower- back injury put Muniyappa, 34, out of action all of 2011 and he is now slowly getting back to playing. He will be at the KGA on a sponsor’s invite.
Anirban Lahiri’s form this year has fluctuated from winning the SAIL-SBI Open to a handful of missed cuts on the Asian Tour. The highlight so far would be playing all four rounds of the British Open in July and attracting attention with a hole-in-one in the third round at Royal Lytham & St Annes, UK. “Bangalore is my hometown and it’ll be nice if I do really well there. I’ve got to keep pushing myself and move in the right direction from where I am today. Hopefully, I can do that,” says the 25-year-old.
The overwhelming favourite is Gaganjeet Bhullar, who has won two Asian Tour events in as many months. The big-hitting man from Kapurthala, Punjab, will be coming into the Hero Indian Open having won the Venetian Macau Open the week before. He led the tournament from start to finish. Bhullar took out the Yeangder Tournament Players Championship in Chinese Taipei last month and warmed up to that win by finishing second at the Worldwide Holdings Selangor Masters in Malaysia the previous week. No golfer in the field is in better form. A win in Bangalore will make it five Asian Tour titles at 24 years of age.
Shiv Kapur is playing well again with top-5 finishes in Macau and the Asia-Pacific Panasonic Open and he likes the KGA, now considered to be one of the best tracts in the country.
It’s all gearing up towards an interesting week, with a trio of European Tour heavyweights also getting into the mix. Peter Hanson of Sweden, Scotsman Richie Ramsay and England’s James Morrison will feature in the $1.25-million event. After a big jump in 2008, the prize money hasn’t gone up over the past four years but the event is travelling to new areas.
Pawan Munjal, managing director and CEO, Hero MotoCorp Ltd, is a keen golfer and has backed the Indian Open since 2005. “I have always believed that we have to take big-ticket golf to other cities for the game to attract more followers,” he says.
Now that they have hit the road, I can’t wait to see where the Indian Open goes next.
Prabhdev Singh is the founding editor of Golf Digest India and a part-time golfer.