India set to become golf's next hot spot

India is set to become the next big golfing destination after the cricket-obsessed nation hosts two groundbreaking multimillion-dollar events in early 2008.

Top stars such as Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie are expected to showcase the European Tour’s maiden entry into the country with the $2,5-million Indian Masters at the Delhi Golf Club from February 7 to 10.

Three weeks later, the DLF Country Club on the outskirts of the Indian capital will host the Johnnie Walker Classic, another prestigious $2,5-million event, from February 28 to March 2.

The prize money for each event is five times bigger than the one offered by the $500 000 Indian Open, a regular feature on the Asian Tour event and the richest golf tournament in the country.

“It does not get bigger than this, not in India at least,” said Jyoti Randhawa, who earlier this month won the Indian Open before 7 000 adoring fans at the Delhi Golf Club. “India is ready for big-time golf and I am sure this is only the beginning. We could be the next golfing hot spot.”

Promoter “golf-in-Dubai”, which is organising the European Tour’s Indian Masters, has joined hands with the Sheikh Maktoum Golf Foundation to develop the sport at the grassroots level in India.

“Golf is among the fastest-growing sports in India and has earned the position of being the second-most-popular sport in the country behind the nation’s beloved cricket,” said company vice-chairperson Mohamed Juma Buamaim.
“We want to help bridge the gap and develop the game as a successful recreational sport.”

Golf may still be too expensive for the purse of the common man, but the rise of Indian professionals abroad such as Randhawa, Jeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal has inspired youngsters to believe there is life beyond cricket.

Indian golf has clearly come a long way since amateur Biloo Sethi’s Indian Open win in 1965, which remained the country’s lone success in its home event till 1991 when caddie-turned-pro Ali Sher wrested the title.

Jeev, son of legendary athlete Milkha Singh, became the first Indian to play at the Augusta Masters this year after finishing in the world’s top 50 in 2006 when he also became Asia’s top golfer.

Cricket-legend-turned-golf-enthusiast Kapil Dev, who is a board member of the Asian Tour, said the country is in the grip of a golf revolution, but warned much work remains to be done.

“I am filled with pride when I hear and read about the exploits of our guys abroad,” said Dev, who led India to their lone cricket World Cup triumph in 1983. “There are millions of kids out there who dream about becoming golfers, just as we dreamt about becoming cricketers in our younger days.

“We need driving ranges and putting greens, not only in big cities but also in smaller towns. Golf has the potential to become very big in India.”

Golf remains an expensive hobby. It is cheaper to buy cricket bats and balls than a golf set where even the cheapest one costs about 7 000 rupees ($155).

But those who can afford it are catching up on lost time. Travel agent Randhir Varma says he is used to drawing up golf-specific holiday packages to meet the growing demand.

“Earlier, tourists came asking for packages for hill stations and the beaches of Goa and Kerala,” said Varma. “Now they want to know which place has the best and cheapest golf course. I had heard of Japanese tourists spending weekends in Australia to play golf. Now Indians are doing the same in their own country.”—Sapa-AFP

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