Singh: India’s man at the Masters

In a country that worships its athletes like no other, Jeev Milkha Singh has intimate knowledge of what it is like to be a sporting deity. His father, Milkha ”The Flying Sikh” Singh, was and remains India’s most famous sprinter courtesy of his exploits on the track back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was recognised as one of the best 400m runners in the world.

”Even now he can’t go anywhere in India without being recognised — train stations, airports, anywhere, people shout out to him. He’s a legend,” says a proud son, whose own exploits in the world of golf have earned him a few shouts of his own.

When Singh won the Volvo Masters at Valderrama at the tail-end of last year, he did so on a day when the Indian cricket team lost, prompting one newspaper to carry the front-page headline ”Indian team loses but Jeev makes up for us”.

Singh, who became the second Indian to win on the European tour when he headed the field at last year’s China Open, climbed up the world rankings to 37th place and was named his country’s 2006 sportsman of the year.

He was no longer the son of a famous athlete but a famous athlete in his own right — a transition that will be acknowledged in April when he becomes the first Indian to compete at the US Masters.

”It has been my dream to play there since I was a boy,” Singh says, repeating the mantra of anyone who has received the tap on the shoulder from the men in green blazers.

Needless to say, the invitation has been framed and hangs on the wall at home. Singh may be the first player from the subcontinent to tee it up at Augusta, but it is safe to assume he will not be the last. Currently India has two players in the top 100 (Singh at 42 and Jyoti Randhawa at 88), while the promising Shiv Kapur has moved up to 182.

If two in the top 100 does not exactly spell global domination, it is at least one more than Scotland (Colin Montgomerie at 19) and there is a sound explanation as to why there have not been more top-class Indian players.

Golf is a rich man’s sport in India. Currently, there is only one course in the country allowing full access to the public. If you want to play you either need to become a member of a club (which is tough unless you come from the right social background) or you need to be invited to play by a member, which is hardly a practical arrangement for a promising player looking to make it as a professional.

”I was lucky. My father was a member of the club in our home town, Chadigarh, and I was able to cycle down there every day and play whenever I wanted,” Singh says, adding that only a handful of the bigger cities have public driving ranges.

”Until we have driving ranges in every town and city in the country we will have a problem. We need to get to the stage where the common man can walk in off the street and try out the game.”

That might take longer than Singh would wish. A booming economy means there will be money available to expand the game in India, but if the experience of China — where club memberships can run to $200 000-plus — is repeated, there will be precious little money spent taking the game to the common man. The leisure needs of the newly wealthy classes need to be catered to and already the big names are circling.

”We are in negotiations about moving into India,” Greg Norman said this month. The Great White Shark charges about $2-million to design a course and his fee is reflected in membership fees.

It is an all too familiar story, depressingly so, but Singh refuses to be pessimistic. The achievements of the current Indian professionals will provide enough inspiration for the country’s young players, even if they do find it hard to find a place to play the game.

”There will be a wave of Indian golfers coming through over the next decade or so,” Singh predicts. ”The big difference from the past is in the parents, who are now ready to give their kids what you could call a ‘free go’ at professional golf.

”There is a lot of emphasis in Indian culture on education and getting your degree, then going on to a good job like doctor or in hi-tech. But the parents are seeing guys doing well in professional golf and they’re saying to their children: ‘Okay, study hard but if you want to make a career in golf, go and do it.”’ — Â

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