The marquees are up, the fairways have been trimmed and the greens are rolling fast at the Delhi Golf Club for the Hero Indian Open championship, which starts today. In its 51st year, the biggest tournament on Indian soil is basking in the limelight of now being part of the European Tour as well.

It has been an Asian Tour event for over a decade. Getting on to the European Tour puts the country’s national Open in the big league, with more prize money, a stronger field of players and a global positioning, as the tour travels to star locations like London and Scotland’s legendary courses.

The Indian Open brings players from over 40 different tours to play, putting the focus on golf in India and the country’s increasing interest in the game.

Arjun Atwal during a practice session at the Delhi Golf Club ahead of the Indian Open, which starts today. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Arjun Atwal during a practice session at the Delhi Golf Club ahead of the Indian Open, which starts today. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Lahiri, who was voted the 2014 Asian Tour Players’ Player of the Year, sees himself winning the trophy this year. “Your National Open is one of great pride and honour. As an Indian that’s one event you want to win," says Lahiri, whose first memory of the Indian Open is walking into the Royal Calcutta Golf Club when he was 12. “Arjun Atwal won that event and I still remember some of the shots he hit. I didn’t even play golf seriously then! I thought to myself that it would be so great to be one of those guys," says Lahiri.

The prize money in 1999, when Atwal was the winner, was $50,000 (around 30 lakh now); today the figure is $1.5 million, a reflection of the game’s growth and ability to attract talent, and the depth of the tour focus in India.

Jeev Milkha Singh. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images
Jeev Milkha Singh. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Singh is excited and encouraged by the new generation of Indian golfers like Lahiri and Khan. He believes more young players will break through the ranks and follow in their footsteps. “They know what’s the right stuff for them and they work hard at it. In the future, I think we will see more young players coming from out of India and they will be inside the top 50 in the world," says Singh.

Started by Australian golfer Peter Thomson, the five-time winner of the British Open, the inaugural Indian Open was held in 1964 and won by Thomson. The first home-grown winner was the late Billoo Sethi, who won by seven strokes in 1965, and remains the only amateur winner. It was not until 1991, when Ali Sher became champion, that India had another winner; Sher won again in 1993. In 1970, the Indian Open became part of the Asia golf circuit and, as a result, the field increased in strength, with notable winners such as three-time Major champion Payne Stewart.

In an interview with Mint in October, Thomson talked about the need to bring golf out of the bunker in India. “It is clearly lagging behind as tourism, and even as a golf state. India should promote golf in a big way. There are lots of naturally built courses in India and they give a tingle to anyone who comes to play here—like they did to me for years," he said.

There is bound to be more interest in golf going ahead. Getting on the European tour puts India in focus, for the coverage is global. Also, Indian golf can finally claim to have quenched its thirst for heroes—Singh and Atwal will be playing, along with Lahiri, Khan and S. Chikkarangappa, a winner on the Asian Development Tour.

These young men are taking on some serious talent globally. The last four tri-sanctioned tournaments have been won by Asians. That streak promises to continue for a while. Singh touched the highest world rank of 29 in Indian golf history, but with Lahiri just 10 notches below, there is hope we will better that record, something that even Tiger Woods alludes to.

In a December interview with Mint, Woods admitted to being impressed with new talent from India and China. “Maybe some little boy will be better than me but I will keep playing so that kid won’t kick my butt yet," he said.

Golf tends to grow in a thriving economy. With talk of policy changes and gross domestic product (GDP) growth, money and interest will both return to the game. One is beginning to see a broader showcase of companies getting into the game and adopting players. Cricketer Murali Kartik says, “Corporate people love to play golf but sponsor cricket." That might be changing a bit, given the new push for kabbadi, hockey and soccer leagues.

The government too is course-correcting to build on the sport. This year the Union tourism ministry has committed 2 crore to support the Indian Open. Joint secretary Suman Billa says that the government is taking up golf tourism very seriously “given the number of scenic and beautiful golf courses we have in India".

Daniel Chopra, a Swedish golfer who played on the PGA Tour and recently topped the Asian Tour Qualifying School final stage, points out that things are changing. “Twenty years ago, a professional golfer from India was unheard of. Now, I have been playing on the PGA Tour for the last 10 years and many of the guys are familiar. Indian golf is already recognized on the global scale now as one of the powerhouses of Asia," he says.

This year’s Indian Open falls in the middle of the cricket world cup season, forcing it to jostle for attention. With star Spanish player Miguel Ángel Jiménez in the field, along with top Indians, one hopes the tournament will get its place in the sun.

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

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