Golfer Gaganjeet Bhullar on tastes acquired on tour, and the game’s changing profile in India

Gaganjeet Bhullar was eight when he finished second in a golf tournament in Mumbai in 1997, far away from his hometown Kapurthala. That trophy motivated him and Bhullar has never looked back since, winning 14 tournaments after having turned professional. “Guys used to wonder what I was doing; they would tell me I wasting my life. But now it’s the other way round,” he says with a wry smile.

We are at Eest, the Oriental specialty restaurant in The Westin Gurgaon, where Bhullar is to host a golf clinic later in the evening. A car breakdown has delayed Bhullar inordinately, but he is considerate enough to have ordered beforehand so as not to keep the chefs, and us, waiting too long. As soon as he arrives, the som tam (raw papaya salad with peanuts and chilli), assorted dimsums (siew mai chicken dumpling, crystal shrimp dumpling, fungus mushroom and asparagus dumpling), crispy chilli fish (stir fried basa fillet with chilli and anise seed) and pad thai phak (Thai rice noodles with tamarind bean sprout and vegetable) are laid out on the table.

As someone who travels for 30-35 weeks a year, Bhullar has had to give up the comforts of home food. Digging into his pad thai phak, he says it was difficult for him to adapt in the beginning.“It took me a little while, but now I feel very comfortable. I am not one of those who is very fond of Indian cuisine outside India. Once in a while it’s fine, but I have made my schedule – once a week I go for Thai, once a week I go for Korean and twice a week I go for Japanese regardless of where I play... I have played a lot in these countries. Over the years when you go, you don’t have a choice but slowly you start enjoying the food and developing a taste.”

He says he has become the go-to guy for friends looking for food and restaurant recommendations. “If my friends go to London, Bangkok, Singapore, Dubai, I tell them which is a very good restaurant to go to and the directions to go there. I’ve been there so many times that I know chefs and the spices they use. If you know that kind of stuff, I guess you are a foodie,” Bhullar smiles.

Even in a relatively sedentary sport like golf, Bhullar says one has to watch what one eats. “Food is one thing which you got to be really careful about. No matter how hard you train in the gym, until and unless your diet is under control you are not going to go ahead. You are just going to fall back,” he cautions.

Bhullar identifies ball striking and course management as the two essential components of the game. In his own assessment, he is a natural at ball striking. “And when you keep on working at the same swing, the same posture, you develop a positive muscle memory which helps you perform better under pressure. Course management comes with experience,” says the golfer who looks ahead to playing alongside the likes of Phil Mickelson and his boyhood idol Tiger Woods later this year.

When it comes to the status of golf in India, Bhullar recognises that it will never attract fans the same way that a sport like cricket does. But things are looking up. “Media has been active. Indian golfers have started playing well abroad. Now most of us are in contention every second week or every month, so the fans have something to cheer about. When I started playing golf, there were only three kids in my golf course, now there are 25. So it’s multiplying…Now because golf is a part of 2016 Olympics, it’s going to multiply quicker. The government is planning to open a lot of public golf courses, and the moment that happens, things will change.”