Women's golf: Champions or glamour girls?

In India, women’s golf continues to be seen as a weekend affair for pretty girls. This, despite the growing influence of Asians, especially from Korea, Thailand and Japan, in world golf.

Aditi Ashok advocates encouragement from parents for the growth of women's golf in the country.   -  Sandeep Saxena

On the final day of the Indian Open golf for women, the sparse crowd at the DLF Golf and Country Club kept following a particular trio. Normally, such attention at major golfing events across the globe is reserved for the leader group — players at the top of the leaderboard and with the best chance of winning the title. Here, however, it was different. A young woman with a famous surname, who kept getting in and out of the top-five through the weekend but ultimately finished runner-up, was the cynosure.

If ever there was a need to be reminded that women’s golf, despite the big strides it has made in recent years, remains name-oriented and not game-oriented, this was it. The moment Cheyenne Woods finished her final round — with a double bogey — the crowd dispersed. And by the time Emily Kristine Pedersen putted for the title, there were only a handful of club regulars present to applaud the Dane’s efforts. The attention had simply drifted away.

There is no denying that golf in India has tried very hard to shake off its elite tag. While men’s golf has moved on with some success, women’s golf continues to be seen as a weekend affair for pretty girls in shorts. This, despite the growing influence of Asians, especially from Korea, Thailand and Japan, in world golf.

“We are trying hard to take the game to a lot more girls than ever before. The problem is exposure for our girls, which also affects their rankings. The more they go out and play across the world, the better it is for the game and their own development,” said Kavita Singh, president of the Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI). The association, along with the Indian Golf Union (IGU), has been striving to get as many exemptions as possible for Indian golfers on the Asian and European Tours but it has still a long way to go.

“Golf is gaining in popularity and there is awareness among the people. Women’s golf is where the game can really take off in India. I feel men’s golf — even though it can also improve — is at a level where scope for development and improvement isn’t much; it has reached a kind of saturation point. There are many in there now. Among women, however, we can come up with some really good scores and go professional and make a mark,” said Vani Kapoor, the Indian Order of Merit leader who has already won five titles this year.

Purely in proportion to the number of courses in the country, India should have far more women golfers on the professional circuit than any other country in the continent. There are 27 Asians among the top-50 in the world and the highest-ranked Indian is Vaishavi Sinha, at 610!

According to Thidapa Suwannapura, who has won here before, opening of courses to the public made a lot of difference to the sport’s popularity in Thailand, which boasts of more than a dozen players in the top-50. Despite that, the Thai players often slip under the radar in India.

Not that Indians have been slow starters. The first Indian woman to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour — the top-drawer circuit in golf — was Smriti Mehra in 1997. More recently, glamour girl Sharmila Nicollet earned a full card on the LET (Ladies European Tour) for 2012 before recurring injuries resulted in her losing the card.

Amateur Aditi Ashok, all of 17 and already with three international titles under her belt so far this year, is seeking to script another chapter in Indian women’s golf. However, from Smriti to Sharmila to Aditi, nobody has really been able to change the image of golf in India.

Vani Kapoor, who finished as the best Indian pro at the marquee Indian Open, insists that the infrastructure in the country is improving. “When I started, around 10-11 years ago, there was nothing. You had to learn everything on your own and it was a trial and error thing. Now there are a lot more courses, academies and coaches, so I think we should not blame the infrastructure. Of course, more support from the government and sponsors would always be welcome,” she said.

Having said that, most of the courses — DLF, Jaypee Greens, Kensville, Kalhaar or even the Delhi Golf Club — she named from in and around the country are either private or restricted to only the members. This hasn’t helped change the way the general public looks at golf in the country.

Aditi agreed. One of the most exciting talents in the country today, the student from Bangalore is one for whom golf is a family affair. Her father not only travels with her across the world but also carries her bag at tournaments.

“Parental support is very important — I would say it’s almost 80% of the requirements. I have won three international events this year, which wouldn’t have been possible if my parents had not taken me there. But I guess there should be more public access to golf, more public facilities to bring more people into the game,” Aditi said.

The fact that no Indian has been in the reckoning in the only LET-sanctioned event in the country is telling. And the system doesn’t help either. The minimum age to turn professional being 18, Indian girls are more prone to quitting the sport early. The pressure of education and opting for a settled career early on means, unlike in other countries, the budding golfers in India are at a disadvantage.

“The age limit (for turning pro) needs to come down. Eighteen is a very tricky age. Girls more often than not get tempted to go to universities abroad and play there, which means four crucial years are lost. Once you come back, you are around 22 — when you should ideally be nearing your peak — and the focus is lost, the priorities change and golf just drops out of the picture,” Vani Kapoor said.

Aditi was of the view that increased prize money for events and more tournaments co-sanctioned by the European or American Tours could be a major factor in improving the golfing standards here. “Indian women golfers are improving and it’s good that they are seriously thinking of increasing the prize money.

“That’s important to bring more top players, which means more serious competition. Even as an amateur, playing against big professionals helps assess my game. But the number of girls taking up golf has increased a lot in the last five years, but it’s still not as much as it should be,” she said.

WGAI secretary Champika Sayal had the last word. “We are doing everything we can, but changing the mindset is not the federation’s job, and it isn’t possible to do it too. We can try and develop sportswomen, but whether they are seen as glamour girls or deserving champions is a different.”