A sublime performance

Champion stuff... Chowrasia with the Indian Masters trophy.-SANDEEP SAXENA

By winning his maiden European Tour event, Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia sent out a statement to the global golf audience that the Indian golfers had well and truly arrived on the big stage, writes Rakesh Rao.

The tagline of the first multi-million-dollar sporting extravaganza in the country read ‘Celebrating Indian golf’. Indeed, the $2.5million Emaar MGF Indian Masters did provide a great reason to celebrate the biggest triumph by a home grown professional before an understandably partisan crowd in the National Capital.

The 18th green of the Delhi Golf Club course has witnessed many thrilling finales. But when Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia stroked his final putt to emerge the winner of the maiden European Tour event in the country, he not only gave the crowd what they were looking for, but also made a quiet statement to the global golf audience that the Indian golfers had well and truly arrived on the big stage.

Golf in the country has been on the upswing since 1998, with the Indians winning 12 dollar-events at home, ahead of more illustrious overseas challengers. Kolkata pro Feroz Ali’s triumph in the 1998 Indian Open ended the drought that had followed Ali Sher’s success in the 1991 and 1993 editions of the premier event and Gaurav Ghei’s dream finish in the 1995 Gadgil Western Masters, also in New Delhi. Thereafter, every time India hosted a dollar-event, the country’s golfing fraternity looked forward to watching the making of an Indian champion.

With Chowrasia winning the biggest of them all, and that too ahead of World No. 4 Ernie Els, winner of two majors Mark O’Meara and members of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, Darren Clark and David Howell, the golfing world realised that India’s caddie-turned pros still had the self-belief to win major tournaments just as Ali Sher, Feroz Ali and Vijay Kumar had done before.

At the start of the event, Jyoti Randhawa was seen as the strongest among the Indians. After all, he had won titles on his last three appearances, including two Indian Opens, at the Delhi Golf Club. The presence of Jeev Milkha Singh, Arjun Atwal, Shiv Kapur besides the ‘tigers’ of the domestic tour, such as Ashok Kumar, Chowrasia and Mukesh Kumar, ensured a strong Indian challenge.

For once, in a European Tour event, Indians were among the contenders. However, at the start of the event, even the most optimistic of the Indian fans would have scoffed at the suggestion of Chowrasia winning the title, and that too six strokes ahead of the mighty Els.

Even as the focus was on Randhawa, Jeev and Shiv, it was Chowrasia who quietly brought in sub-par cards day after day to move to tied-fifth spot with Atwal after the penultimate round.

Chowrasia produced his best on the last day. He shot three birdies on the first four holes to take the lead from overnight leader Raphael Jacquelin of France and then picked up another shot on the inward nine before finishing the round three strokes ahead of his nearest challenger Damien McGrane. The Irishman eventually reduced the margin with a final-hole birdie.

Chowrasia also had the distinction of winning a European Tour event on his first appearance and that too by remaining the only player in the illustrious field to return sub-par rounds on all four days. With this Chowrasia became only the third Indian to win a European Tour event. Atwal won the 2002 Singapore Masters and the 2003 Malaysian Open before Jeev claimed the Volvo China Open and the Volvo Masters in 2006.

Before Chowrasia gave the finishing touches to his sublime performance, Digvijay Singh and Gaurav Ghei ensured a top-10 finish with sub-par rounds on the final day. It was indeed heartening to see three Indians, other than Jyoti, Jeev, Atwal and Shiv, earn a top-10 finish from such a strong field.

With 14 Indians making the money-list and five players in the top-25 bracket, the home golfers gave a timely account of their growing prowess. Timely because the European Tour had initially offered limited spots to the Asian Tour and bypassed the domestic PGTI Tour for the event. After several meetings, the issue was resolved with the Asian Tour and European Tour sharing 110 spots. From the share of the Asian Tour, eventually, 31 Indians managed to tee-off.

The Indians were obviously expected to gain from their knowledge of this tight and unforgiving course. But a day before the event, Randhawa put things in perspective. “I think the Indian challenge is very strong. This golf course requires local knowledge, especially on the greens. But this is a European Tour event and some world-class players are here. You know, it’s not difficult for one to understand the golf course once you play on it.”

As it turned out, the cold, windy conditions and the grainy greens surprised even the best of Indians. On the first day when the conditions were less hostile, Randhawa took a two-shot lead with a round of seven-under 65, the best card of the event. But Ernie Els lost his way dramatically after a quadruple-bogey on the par-5 18th and could never really come back into contention.

Even as some of the other European Tour regulars found out the virtues of staying on the fairway with their tee-shots on this “old-fashioned course”, players like Randhawa, Jeev and Shiv disappointed. Jeev, in fact, missed the ‘cut’ and remained without a major title in the country.

Though Els recovered well to finish joint-sixth, the South African was obviously not happy with his performance. But he saw a great future for Indian golf.

“If you look at Jeev, who has won in Japan, on the European Tour, and Jyoti, Shiv doing well and Arjun playing on the US Tour, they have all broken through. But India needs to start building more courses and have an infrastructure for the game and then hopefully, you will be off to the races. You do play a lot of ball sports here like hockey, cricket and tennis and so the ball sense is there for the youngsters. So for them to pick up golf, it might be easier,” Els said.

For now, Indians are gaining from the growth of the Asian Tour in the same way as many Europeans once benefited from playing in the US PGA Tour. With Chowrasia joining Randhawa, Jeev and Shiv on the European Tour and earning the right to play in the best of golfing destinations in Europe till the end of 2010, one can expect this success to act as a catalyst for aspiring Indian professionals.

Jeev, the flag-bearer of Indian golf since 1994, sees a great future for the game in the country. “India has come a long way in golf and there is a lot of talent in our country, with a good system in place. We are going to see a few new champions coming through in the coming years,” he said.

Though this is only the start of the season, Chowrasia’s winning purse of $416,660 has already raised visions of a fourth Indian winning the Asian Tour Order of Merit by the end of the year. In the past, Randhawa (2002), Atwal (2003) and Jeev (2006) have won the honour.

With the domestic tour promising to offer more than Rs. five-crore this season, there is enough incentive for the budding talents to take up golf as a profession and then move on to the more lucrative tours abroad. Compared to many other countries, golf may still be in its infancy in India, but the sport’s growth is very encouraging.