The smell of grass, off a freshly made divot with a six-iron, is one Shiv Shankar Prasad Chawrasia has been familiar with for 33 years.
The two-time Hero Indian Open champion, known in the circuit as SSP, started his golf journey at the age of 6 with three borrowed golf clubs at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC, the world’s second oldest after St Andrews in Scotland). It wasn’t a sport he could afford to play but it was one he grew to love.
His family didn’t have enough money, his father was a greens-keeper at the same golf course and had made it clear to his son that golf was a sport beyond his financial reach. “Studies were the only option for me but I was quite poor at it. So I knew I had to master golf, something I loved,” recalls SSP, now 38.
A member donated three clubs to get him started—a pitching wedge, six-iron and putter. This was in the mid-1980s. He played with RCGC members and beat them at their game, a measure of his ability.
“I just practised day and night. I turned pro in 1997 without playing any junior or amateur tournaments.”
Was it confidence? “No, I could not afford being part of such tours. I had to play for money, so turning pro was the only option.”
His first tournament outside Kolkata was the Patna Open, where he made the cut but finished a not-so-encouraging 37th. SSP followed up by applying to the Q-school (qualification school for professional golfers) for entry to the national domestic tour.
Those years were an uneasy mix of struggle and hope; SSP had to convince his family that his chosen course would yield results. In 1999, he finished second in the Indian Open, which used to be played in Kolkata, mostly at the RCGC—a course SSP knew well.
“I earned Rs9 lakh at that tournament,” says SSP, who remembers it as the turning point in his golf career. “I bought a small flat and felt I no longer needed to depend on just sponsors for the survival of my career in golf.”
It was not just a financial fillip but a real boost to his confidence and calibre. This was followed by his maiden victory at the Army Golf Course in Delhi in the early 2000s.
Today SSP is a four-time European Tour winner. His most recent triumph came just a month ago when he successfully defended the Hero Indian Open title at the challenging DLF Gary Player course.
“Winning back-to-back titles is most satisfying. But it was even more special to win the tournament on a difficult course. It was a long and narrow course, made even more difficult by the tricky greens that rolled in so many different directions. This is the best victory of my career.”
A career in golf can often be a lonely one. Winning titles has helped him overcome his early challenges, says SSP. “I have played golf for a long time. At times I started to feel that I was stuck in the same place. I am delighted to finally win titles regularly but it has been a long and hard journey to reach this point.”
With his world ranking climbing to 162, SSP is a man on a mission. Over the next few weeks, he will be playing tournaments in Japan, China, the UK and France. He spent last year reworking his strategy and admits it has prepared him for the big contests ahead.
“I had to be honest with myself. I was not doing well, stuck in the same place after such a long time. At the start of 2016, I introspected about my game and myself. We identified certain weaknesses and went to work on them. We also worked on physical fitness and mental strength.”
Next, SSP wants to build on this success on the European Tour so that he can get a grip on the majors. “I want to build on my success and do well in Europe. I am keen to win on European soil. I will play some qualifying events this season to try and make it into the majors. Long term, I also want to break inside the top 100, so that I can get better access to major tournaments.”
Shaili Chopra is the founder of Golfingindian.com and India Golf Awards.