Something unprecedented happened on the first Saturday of August 2021. Indian Twitter was abuzz about golf: a subject it hardly cares about. Usually, a live game gets less attention in India than, say, highlights of a 20-year-old cricket match. But on that Saturday, at 2 am IST, Indians were up, looking up definitions of birdies and bogeys, reading explainers, and refreshing the leaderboard. They all mentioned one name. #AditiAshok. A 23-year-old female Indian golfer, on the brink of winning a historic Olympic medal in Tokyo, had made tens of thousands wake up in the wee hours to watch a sport they had never watched before.
Aditi agonisingly missed out on a medal on the final day, to finish fourth. But she came close — close enough to push her countrymen to the edge of their seats, close enough to slightly lift her sport’s profile in her country. Her performance signalled the drifting away of golf being “an elite old man’s sport” in India.
A brief history of Indian golf
Golf in India is old. Really old. Older than India itself, if you consider August 15, 1947, as the country’s date of birth. It even predates the First World War and, in sporting history, the football world cup, Wimbledon tennis championships, and the first-ever modern Olympics.
As one of the earliest colonial imports, the British brought golf to the subcontinent in 1829 when they established the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. (It is the oldest golf club in the world outside Great Britain.) Soon more clubs sprouted in different directions — the Royal Bombay Golf Club in 1842, the Bangalore Golf Club in 1876 and the Madras Gymkhana golf club in 1877.
All this, while golf in the United States, which is now considered the leading nation in the sport, did not even exist. Europe was still getting introduced to it. India meanwhile, had almost half a dozen fully functioning clubs by the beginning of the 20th Century.
Right from its beginning, however, golf has largely remained a rich man’s game. The high cost associated with memberships, course fees, equipment, and accessories made the sport exclusive to the upper class. This is especially true in India, where the rich-poor divide is starker than in the major golf-playing nations. Most of the courses here are tough to access as they are either owned by the private clubs that charge a hefty membership fee, or the Indian army. A golf set containing a driver, a wood, a hybrid, seven sets of irons, and a putter costs anywhere between ₹40,000 to ₹2,00,000 in India.
Because of its exclusivity to the elite, golf has never grown popular in India. There have been sporadic successes at the professional level, just a handful of internationally recognised Indian names, and very few youngsters taking up the sport.
Indian golf, however, is changing.
Not all clubs are the same
The COVID impact
Apart from Aditi’s Olympic heroics, there was another key catalyst last year that helped surge the growth of golf in India: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Golf in India received a major boost in the last two years,” says Romit Bose, the president of the Professional Golfers’ Association of India (PGAI). “We have seen a three-fold increase in sales of equipment, usage of facilities, and people coming into the game. This is the biggest increase India has ever seen.” He says at least 200 people turn up to play every day at his newly set up academy within Siri Fort Golf Driving Range in Delhi. This number increases by at least 1.5 times on weekends.
“Compared with pre-pandemic figures, the golf equipment industry has grown 25 to 30 per cent,” says Ateet Gaur, the founder of Trinity Golf India, distributors of some of the world’s leading golf brands. “We see more sales not just in metros but in some of the smaller cities like Nasik, Kanpur, Meerut, Bathinda, and Bikaner as well. This is because there are courses within defence areas that also let civilians play. ”
Hamza Yunus, the director of golf at the Prestige Prestige Golfshire Club in Bengaluru, also reports a rise in bookings post-2020. “Over the weekends, we used to hardly touch 180 pre-pandemic. Now, we get more than 210 bookings.”
But how did the pandemic help increase these numbers?
Romit offers an explanation. “The pandemic made us focus on health and fitness. People wanted to take up a new sport. Since golf is played with minimal human contact, it was safe as well. So, we got new entrants” He adds, “COVID also brought back many people — say, elderly businessmen — who had given up golf in their 30s and 40s. These people suddenly had more time on their hands. So, they picked up their clubs again.”
The accomplishments of players like Jeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal in the 2000s spurred young talent. The baton of Indian golf, since the 2010s, has been largely carried by Anirban Lahiri, who has 18 international titles. The 34-year-old is now accompanied by Shubhankar Sharma (25) and Aditi (24) as the flagbearers of Indian golf.
“Success breeds success,” says Bibhuti Bhushan, the director-general of the Indian Golf Union (IGU), which is the National Sports Federation for golf. “Performances of the current generation of players like Anirban and Aditi have generated tremendous interest in the sport and serve as motivation.”
Pranavi Urs, 19, from Mysuru is one such example. She was among the tens and thousands who were rooting for Aditi to win an Olympic medal in Tokyo. “Though she missed out on a medal, I think it was a huge step forward for golf in India, especially for women,” she says.
Pranavi reckons golf is not an old man’s sport anymore. “There’s a lot more emphasis on fitness. It’s gotten more physical. A lot more youngsters, especially girls, are willing to try it. My school friends, who never understood the sport back then, are now playing it. Golf is that kind of a sport, where it’s difficult to explain to others but once you start playing it, you’ll absolutely love it.”
Pranavi currently plays in the Ladies European Tour (LET) Access Series, the official development tour to the LET series. She took up the sport when she was five, after regularly watching her father and brother tee off. That’s another thing about Indian golfers – most of them are introduced to the sport usually by their fathers. Or they have an Army background. And, almost all of them come from affluent families. But exceptions, albeit a handful, do exist.
Popularising the sport
Chikkarangappa’s story is among the most remarkable ones in Indian golf. His father, Seenappa, was a mason who worked at the Eagleton Golf Resort in Bengaluru. Due to financial constraints at home, young Chikkarangappa also pitched in, working as a ball boy at the same resort for less than ₹50 a day.
The boy, wanting to emulate the players he watched every day, once took a club and swung it hard at the ball. He thought no one was watching. But there was an eye-witness: Vijay Divecha, the resident coach. Divecha was impressed with the 11-year-old’s untrained yet admirable shot, and promised Chikkarangappa that he would support him if he took up the sport.
The mason’s son is now one of the top 10 pro-golfers in the country. “I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time,” he says. Apart from a high-profile coach like Divecha, he had the support of the golf resort he worked for. “I had access to good facilities, equipment, and mentors. But it’s definitely not easy when you come from a non-golfing background. It’s a long, tough journey to the top and you need to sacrifice a lot.”
Though Chikkarangappa, 28, now sees more newcomers compared to his initial days in golf, he feels it is still difficult for someone outside the upper class to break through. He thinks the sport needs to be more accessible and popular.
“You cannot do this without government intervention,” says Rashid Khan, another top-10 Indian golfer. “In cricket, you have the BCCI taking care of everything. Even for a few other sports in India, you have a proper body that looks after things like appointing the right coaches. We don’t have something like that for golf.” Though there are bodies like IGU, PGAI, and Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI), they are not financially robust, therefore, limited in power.
Rashid also calls for more golf courses. At the moment, according to the IGU, there are 2,00,000 golfers (amateur and professionals) and 231 courses in India. That is roughly 866 golfers per course. And, not all courses are accessible to everyone. In other words, not every golfer can easily find a place to play.
Setting up a new course, however, costs crores. So, Romit suggests the focus should be on the creation of new driving ranges instead of golf courses. Unlike a course, which requires acres and acres of land, a driving range just needs the space of a cricket field. “It’s like having community tennis courts. You can have a big stadium like Roland Garros, but we need more courts, which are entry points to the game.”
Driving ranges are also way more affordable than a typical golf course, where the green fee usually costs a few thousand. At Romit’s academy, you can go hit balls for less than ₹200 — less than ₹120 if you are a student. Most of his clientele are aged between 22 and 32.
Private golf courses are also offering special discounts to attract youngsters. Membership for golfers under 18 at the Prestige Golfshire Club, for instance, costs 50% less than the regular membership fee.
“It is a myth that golf is a rich man’s game,” reckons Brandon D’Souza, the president of the Golf Industries Association. He concurs with Romit in having more driving ranges. Apart from this, he also suggests promoting domestic and inbound golf tourism. “Instead of going to Europe, we can have our golfers travel to Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad or even Kodaikkanal and Ootacamund.” Romit and Brandon also wish clubs to promote domestic leagues a la the IPL. “It should be fun and entertaining for people to get attracted,” says Romit.
Indian golf still has a long way to go. Of late, however, the signs have been encouraging. Players, golfpreneurs, and administrators reckon it has never been better. As Chikkarangappa says, it is the right time for the game to be more inclusive. “We have to devise a system, wherein a youngster from any background can participate in the sport easily. That’s how we can find more talent. It will take a long time to groom them. But if we start now, one of them would get us an Olympic medal 20-25 years down the line.”