Golf | Indians owe it to Asian Tour6 min read . Updated: 17 Apr 2013, 08:51 PM IST
The Asian Tour, which is in its 10th year, is an important step on the professional ladder and has been the biggest factor in improving quality
Those who write on golf and carry protruding midriffs have a convenient punching bag in the Asian Tour. Let me explain.
If you wanted to convey the happenings on a golf course 20 years ago, you had to walk it. At least, some of it. Sweat lent authenticity to the golf report the morning after. Along came the air-conditioned confines of the media centre. Daily reports, player quotes, their profiles and past performances were there for the asking. Live TV was the killer blow. No, hang on. Complimentary, all-you-can-eat, catered meals were. I have fond memories of the lunch spreads from the Emaar-MGF Indian Masters at the Delhi Golf Club. That set a new benchmark. It was a tough call between Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia’s home stretch and the lamb slices in black pepper sauce. Big-ticket events do know how to lay it on.
I digress. The real beneficiaries of the Asian Tour have been their main constituents, the players. I will go out on a limb here and say that the single biggest factor in the improvement of quality, and quantity, of career golfers in India and across this region has been the Asian Tour. Actually, I have some backing.
“The Asian Tour made my life. It gave me a chance to follow my dream and make a living out of it," says Jeev Milkha Singh, a two-time Asian Tour No.1 with 14 international wins. That’s quite an
endorsement from a former world top-50 player, and there’s more.
“I owe my golf to the Asian Tour. Whatever opportunities came my way were through the Asian Tour and it made me what I am today," acknowledges Jyoti Randhawa, the first Indian order of merit winner on that tour in 2002, an achievement that gave him direct access to the Japan Golf Tour. Randhawa went on to win the Suntory Open there the following year and has also plied his trade in Europe. The son of a retired brigadier, his activities include jumping off planes and admiring underwater sealife, and owning big motorbikes and guns. Expensive hobbies that wouldn’t have been possible without the Asian Tour, he admits.
The financial rewards are not everything. “The Asian Tour makes you a better golfer. We play in so many different conditions across the continent …bent grass greens in Korea, grainy greens in Taiwan, the heat and humidity of Malaysia. These experiences complete you as a player," says Gaurav Ghei. There’s a lot to take in.
Last year, the Asian Tour had 26 prize money events on its calendar (excluding the majors and WGCs, or World Golf Championships) worth $37,495,000 (around ₹ 203.67 crore), played in 14 countries. The tour does half-a-dozen joint sanctioned events with the European Tour, of which one of them, the Omega European Masters, is held in Europe, in Switzerland. Then there’s the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur in partnership with the US PGA Tour, and the Asia-Pacific Panasonic Open conducted in Japan.
What makes it particularly attractive for Indians is that you don’t need to relocate to play on a big, lucrative tour. “The Asian Tour has worldwide recognition. Our players are good enough to compete anywhere. It’s a strong, stand-alone tour and no venue is more than a 6-hour flight from home," says Digvijay Singh, a member of the Asian Tour’s tournament players committee.
From being managed by a marketing firm as the Asian PGA for a decade, the renamed Asian Tour, like all major tours, is a player-run organization with its management handled by an executive body. Into its 10th year, the Asian Tour, headquartered in Singapore, has been the key step on the professional ladder for Asian golfers. It is like college after school, and it sets you up for university and beyond.
Look at Chowrasia. Quite content playing on India’s domestic tour, he lost out to Randhawa in a play-off for the 2006 Hero Honda Indian Open title, a part of the Asian Tour schedule. With a good cheque in the bank, the then 28-year-old decided to head out. The first port of call was Macau, and then the Philippines. He made the cut in both places and decided it was time to upgrade. Of course, the 2008 Emaar-MGF Indian Masters win followed by the 2011 Avantha Masters title (both tri-sanctioned between the Asian and European Tours and the PGTI) catapulted Chowrasia into Europe, and that’s where he wants to stay now. “I’m playing in Europe because of the Asian Tour. No chance otherwise," he states.
His fellow-Kolkatan, Rahil Gangjee, got his career off to a fast start when he won the Volkswagen Masters-China in 2004. “A flash in the pan at that point," says Gangjee. Playing better competition, observing their mannerisms and ball control over the years has made Gangjee a different player today, when he feels like a top-10 Asian Tour golfer. “I sat behind Retief Goosen at the range for half an hour during the 2007 Johnnie Walker Classic (at the Blue Canyon Country Club, Thailand). He would place a ball, think of the shot, tap the club a couple of times on the turf and hit it. That routine did not change," he recalls.
It was on the backing of his Asian Tour earnings (and the prodding of his good friend Arjun Atwal) that Gangjee ground it out for two years on the Nationwide Tour in the US. He doesn’t have much to show from there in terms of performances but he says the stint has put some steel into his thinking. In fact, Atwal’s journey to the promised land of golf began with the 1999 Wills Indian Open title on his home course, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, and he has gone on to do what no other Indian has done so far, which is win on the US PGA Tour.
Mike Kerr, CEO, Asian Tour, sees that statistic changing. “India has the best talent, the biggest middle class and now, there is acknowledgment and acceptance of golf. There is no stopping golf in India," he declares. Kerr, 42, says the economic, and therefore golf’s, centre of gravity is shifting to the East. Asia is driving the economic engine of growth and the growing middle class is discovering a new leisure pursuit in golf. The Asian Tour is performing its role of creating more playing opportunities for those who want to make a living out of playing golf.
By the looks of it, there are plenty who want to do that. The Asian Tour Qualifying School this year in Thailand had 750 entries. About 30 nationalities from across the globe are represented on the tour. Precious World Golf Ranking points (minimum 14 points for a win and going up depending on the strength of the field) are a big drawcard and that comes courtesy the Asian Tour being a member of the International Federation of PGA Tours.
Kerr wants to revive old stops like Vietnam and Brunei and go to new markets like Sri Lanka and Mauritius. “Live TV is a huge platform and we have a global audience. This is a great vehicle to showcase cities and real estate developments on the world stage," says Kerr, himself from a TV background. “I have staked my career on the Asian Tour," says the Northern Irishman, who now calls Asia home, having lived in these parts for close to two decades. Good reason to grab the tiger by the tail.
Prabhdev Singh is the founding editor of Golf Digest India and a part-time golfer.