The showpiece event of India’s golf calendar is here. With a never before prize money of $1.25 million on offer, the Hero Honda Indian Open makes its debut at the picturesque DLF Golf and Country Club on Thursday.

With so much at stake and millions spent on setting up the country’s flagship competition, one would have expected a field worthy of the growing status of the annual extravaganza.

The presence of 40 Asian Tour winners makes it a pretty formidable field. However, disappointing is the fact that only seven out of the top-20 money earners on the Tour have cared to make it.

Biggest dampener

From India’s point of view, the biggest dampener is clearly the absence of contenders like Jeev Milkha Singh and Jyoti Randhawa. This past Sunday, Jeev ensured his PGA Tour card. Randhawa still has some distance to cover in order to make the top-60 bracket of the European Tour for the Race to Dubai field.

In their absence, it is an opportunity for those from the country’s Generation Next to strike on the big stage.

Gaganjeet Bhullar is the best Indian bet. Only last month, this 21-year-old from Kapurthala displayed nerves of steel to keep at bay the challenge of two-time champion Randhawa to win the DLF Masters on this course.

A qualifying berth in the British Open, the Indonesian Open title and a second-best finish in the Brunei Open in successive weeks saw Bhullar earn the tag of being the next big name among the bunch of young Indian professionals.

In form Anirban Lahiri, whose approach and technique have received praise from none other than Jeev, is another one to watch out for. Himmat Rai is the other youngster who has shown the promise to be part of the next line of young, confident professionals.

Since Ali Sher showed the way in 1991 and 1993, several Indians have won the Open. In fact, nothing has helped golf in the country more than the victories of the home favourites in the dollar-events held in the country in the last 18 years.

Impact on edition

Therefore, the apparent lack of quality contenders from India is likely to impact this edition of the Open.

Also in the midst is the 1999 champion Arjun Atwal, plagued by injury to both shoulders and still far from playing at his best. He cannot be expected to reproduce the magic of 2000 when he won the Masters title on this course.

“For the first time, I am playing in India without really feeling that I can win. I don’t have any expectations. If I am still pain-free after four days, I think that will be a step forward,” said Atwal who was forced to take a four-month break from competitive golf due to nagging shoulder injuries.

“In fact, Tiger Woods advised not to return to tournaments unless I am fully fit,” added the Florida-based Atwal who finished tied-42 last Sunday in the Turning Stone championship.

From the mix of Asian and domestic tour regulars, including Digvijay Singh, Ashok Kumar, Mukesh Kumar, S.S.P. Chowrasia and Gaurav Ghei, a surprise cannot be ruled out.

Not a favourite

Significantly, New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, winner of the 2005 US Open ahead of Tiger Woods, is not among the favourites. “I have had a lean year. I am back from a rotator cuff injury on my right shoulder suffered last October. But I will try to do my best in the rest of the year. I am here to have some fun,” said Campbell, sounding realistic.

Among the other overseas contenders, 2005 champion Thailand’s Thaworn Wiratchant, Swede Daniel Chopra, USA’s Anthony Kang, South Africa’s James Kamte, the Philippines’ Angelo Que, Australia’s Adam Blyth and the 2004 champion Singapore’s Mardan Mamat appear in good form.

It will be interesting to watch how the overseas players tackle the grainy greens here. The course, looking more challenging with every passing season, will be a delight for the long hitters.

What adds to the degree of difficulty is the fact that the rough is up as compared to last months DLF Masters. The warm weather, with no appreciable wind, is likely to ensure a double-digit sub-par score for the winner.

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