They were simply the dreams of a five-year-old besotted with golf. He would chip the ball into a bucket from the bouncy mudflat of his aangan, or courtyard. His bunker practice was out of a tasla (a shallow iron bowl) filled with sand. He would spend hours practising with a single golf club donated to him, on a narrow strip of grass along their home’s front wall in which his dad had punched three holes.

This is how the world’s new junior golf champion started learning his game less than five years ago, in a village in Haryana. The son of a milkman, Shubham Jaglan, now 10, followed international golf on tapes and Internet videos when he could get a turn at the cyber café. On weekends, his best time of the week, his father would drive him to Karnal, an hour away from his village Israna, to play at the golf range there.

Jaglan won two global golf championships in a matter of weeks earlier this month—the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego, US, and the World Stars of Junior Golf Tournament in Las Vegas—putting the spotlight on golf at the grass roots.

“I used to be with the Golf Foundation at that point in time (at around age 5), we were working with underprivileged kids, and my responsibilities involved scouting for new talent and training the kids," recalls his coach and mentor Nonita Lal Qureshi. “I saw his name pop up as a clear winner in a number of junior events that I was tracking. That was when I established contact with him." And this is how the New Delhi-based Golf Foundation decided to fund him.

Nineteen-year-old Manu Gandas is the son of a sports teacher in Gurgaon, adjacent to the Capital. “When he showed talent, we decided to support him," says Aakash Ohri, executive director, DLF Home Developers Ltd. “His coach and he travelled to the Butch Harmon School of Golf (Dubai). What impressed us about Manu was his steely resolve and focus on golf." Earlier, he would travel from Gurgaon to the Delhi Golf Club to try and play with any golfer who would allow him to join in, but once the DLF course was ready, he got the opportunity in Gurgaon. Gandas won a silver medal at the Asian Youth Games in 2013.

Aditi Ashok, 14, from Bengaluru, who is currently the leader of the Indian Golf Union Ladies order of merit, scripted history when she became one of the youngest women amateur players to win the prestigious 54-hole St Rule Trophy at the iconic St Andrews Links in Scotland last month.  Interest in golf has grown significantly in India but infrastructure is far from matching demand. For many, it remains inaccessible and elitist, despite success stories like Jaglan’s. “There is no structured comprehensive programme for juniors," says Rajiv Talwar, founder of Albatross Golf, a junior tour affiliated to the US-based International Junior Golf Academy. “Everything exists in bits and pieces. And there is not much support from schools and colleges," he adds.

“Like many other sports, there is a need for attention in golf at an early stage," says Qureshi, who trains children at the Delhi Golf Club. “We must start grooming our kids from a much younger age and not when they are 14-15 years if we want to make them into real-world champions."

You don’t need a full golf course to make the sport accessible. From mini man-made courses to a small patch of putting green, there are several options that are used widely in schools across the world. In India, however, the sport has got little recognition in schools.

One option, says Arun Singh, director general of the Indian Golf Union, the sport’s apex body, is for the growing number of golf courses to simply open their doors to those interested in the game. “They should have a certain time of day dedicated to students where all children need is an ID to go and play," says Singh. “It’s not enough to do junior training programmes. It’s important to expose the sport early and to a wider lot of children than only those who enrol into programmes. We need to show the kids the joy of golf."

The government can do its bit. It owns most of the land that is home to golf courses and can suggest guidelines that force courses and clubs to open up to students in a display of social responsibility.

Many of India’s golf champions have come from smaller towns or have had access to the Armed Forces’ golf infrastructure. India’s top-ranked golfer, Anirban Lahiri, admits that if it wasn’t for the army, he may not even have been a golfer. His father is a doctor in the army, so Lahiri learnt his game on the army’s courses.

Or look at the success story of Gaganjeet Bhullar, who learnt the game at the Kapurthala Rail Coach Factory Golf Club course at a time when few used it. Seeing him, other youngsters from Kapurthala have picked up the game. The club allows children to play and practise for a nominal fee.

“Most of the champions will come from smaller towns," says Singh. “There’s more hunger among them. Additionally, the pressure on the golf clubs and academies (outside metro cities) is not so much and the atmosphere is not so intimidating." The Chandigarh Golf Association (CGA) Golf Range, for example, is considered the nursery for golf in India. The juniors are initiated at the golf range, which charges 50 a day. This fee, however, is waived off if they are part of a junior camp. “We have kids like Aditya Gupta, son of a grocery store owner in Chandigarh, and Amit Lall, son of a caddie. Some of these kids have been taken up by the Golf Foundation as well," says Jesse Grewal, who runs the golf range.

As Singh puts it: “Cricket 60 years ago was as intimidating as golf is today. Remember, it was always the rajas and maharajas who captained teams. “It’s only when the middle class became a part of the game, that’s really when the sport became popular. It’s only then we will have big success."

Shaili Chopra is the founder of Golfingindian.com and India Golf Awards.

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