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Anirban Lahiri. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Anirban Lahiri. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

On the greens, a new order shines for Indian golf

Indian golfers are hungrier, more adventurous, and have better resources. It shows in the results

The past few weeks have been filled with joy and excitement for Indian golfers and fans. That there is a new crop of aggressive and fearless young golfers in India trying to make their mark is old news. But now they have begun to make those inroads, even stepping outside India and winning at the Asian level.

There is more. The past few weeks have also seen the “old order"—Jeev Milkha Singh, Jyoti Randhawa, both 42, and Arjun Atwal, 41—trying to recapture the kind of form that made them India’s golfing idols over the past decade and a half. Meanwhile, in between the “new order"—comprising players like Rashid Khan, S. Chikkarangappa and Shubhankar Sharma—and the “old order" is another generation of golfers who have also struck a rich vein of form. Anirban Lahiri has made big strides this year, and Shiv Kapur, S.S.P. Chowrasia, Gaganjeet Bhullar and Rahil Gangjee are all trying to break into the next level in Europe and then, hopefully, at the highest level, the PGA tour in the US.

In a span of four weeks, from 23 October-16 November, four Indians won three Asian Tour events and one on the Asian Development Tour (ADT). Lahiri won the Macau Open and Chowrasia took the Panasonic Open, while Khan grabbed the Chiangmai Classic and Chikkarangappa won the Take Solutions Open on the ADT.

Players like Lahiri and Bhullar admit that it was the exploits of the “old order", who have 21 Asian Tour titles between them (and a bunch of titles in Europe, Japan, even the US)—that motivated them to explore new frontiers. In August, after the PGA Championship, Lahiri said: “What a player like Jeev achieved was phenomenal. Those were the days (the early and mid-1990s) when Indians hardly travelled abroad, and he was among the pioneers. Then he went and played in Japan for years. That was path-breaking in many senses."

Singh, when asked about those days, says: “It’s been about 20 years since I started playing on the Asian Tour. There were hardly any Indians coming out and playing outside India. I studied in the US and played college golf there. Many young US golfers were coming to Asia to hone their skills. I could see that playing in new conditions and new courses was the way to learn, so I played wherever I could, whether it was Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines or Thailand."

Then Singh joined the Japan Tour in 2000.

“Japan was an amazing experience. They love their golf, love their players, and the conditions are tough," he says. “The courses are difficult and the competition, intense. I took time to adjust to the language and food. It could be lonely at times. After golf I would pass time listening to Indian music and watching Hindi films over and over again on DVDs. I used to carry lots of DVDs."

Things have changed since then. Singh now loves Japanese food and has plenty of friends there. He has also won four times in Japan and even had a Japanese sponsor at one time. He believes that the reason for the increasing success of Indian golfers is that more and more players have taken the same path as him, playing and learning abroad, especially on the Asian Tour.

Rashid Khan. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Rashid Khan. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It was Khan’s uncle Maqbool, who played on the Indian pro circuit, who motivated him to take up the sport. Khan, whose father worked in the equipment shop at the Delhi Golf Club, fought economic and social constraints to make his mark in golf. In 2010, he became India’s top amateur and won team silver at the Asian Games. He turned pro later that year. By 2012, he had graduated to the Asian Tour.

“The competition is certainly way stronger on the Asian Tour," Khan says. “As an amateur I played many courses in Asia and elsewhere, but now playing the same courses alongside big stars on the Asian Tour is great learning."

Randhawa and Atwal are convinced that this new generation is better than they were at this age.

“These guys are superb players. Their skill is way better than what we had at the same age," Randhawa says. “I see them turning pros at 17, 18, 19. These guys say they look up to us, but now I have to try and keep up with them. But I am looking forward to that and I want to be a threat to them." 

Two weeks ago, Randhawa, who last won a title on the Asian Tour in 2009, finished runner-up to 23-year-old Khan at the Chiangmai Classic.

Three weeks ago, at the Panasonic Open, as Chowrasia was winning his first title in three years, others in contention included Khan, who ended 10th. But in fourth place was an 18-year-old—Shubhankar Sharma.

Sharma was barely 17 when he turned pro and he did his schooling privately while focusing on his future as a pro golfer. “It was a big decision. But we (his father and he) decided to take the plunge," Sharma says. “Then I played as much as I could. This year we also invested in playing on the Asian Development Tour, where some top Asian Tour players are regulars. You get to see them and learn a lot."

The orders are blurring. The competition is getting better.

“I saw Anirban winning in Macau and then Chow (Chowrasia) win at home and Rashid in Chiangmai last week," says Atwal, who was Asia’s No.1 player in 2003, as well as the first Indian to win on the PGA Tour. “These guys are not afraid. They come out and are ready to win. It’s great for Indian golf. They are fearless and I love that about them." The competitive nature of the players reminds Atwal of his early days travelling and playing with Singh and Randhawa.

Jeev Milkha Singh. Photo: Stanley Chou/Getty Images
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Jeev Milkha Singh. Photo: Stanley Chou/Getty Images

Atwal believes Indian golfers can now aim at the elite levels of the sport—they have the resources and skills to get there.

“Anirban is only 27 and he’s already won five times on the Asian Tour, which is ridiculous," Atwal says. “I told him that he’s better than we were at his age. It’s called evolution and they have to be better. For a country that’s mainly crazy about cricket and (where) golf is not really popular, I think we are doing okay. I think these guys can go as far as they want. They can play on the PGA Tour, win on the PGA Tour, and why not the Majors?"

Yet Kapur, who struck it big in his rookie year in 2005, winning the Volvo Masters of Asia, strikes a word of caution. The 32-year-old, who now plays on the European Tour, says, “With growing prize money on the domestic tour, there is a tendency to stay back and play at home. The money is good, but you don’t grow in terms of golf. I would love to see these youngsters more hungry and more motivated to play at higher levels, rather than taking recourse to comfort levels."

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