Eyeing a win on the European Tour

Bhullar receives the Arjuna Award from President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.-R.V. Moorthy

The 26-year-old, who conducted a clinic for women, at the Cosmopolitan Course, is as patient with the scribes as he was with the female golfers. The Arjuna Award winner in conversation with K. Keerthivasan.

In a banquet hall, on the seventh floor of Hotel Westin in Chennai, Gaganjeet Bhullar is meeting journalists. A bevy of reporters are waiting for their turn to have a few words with one of India’s fast-improving professional golfers.

After winning nine PGTI (National) titles and five on the Asian Tour, the Indian has set his eyes on the European Tour, and is eager to win a title there. The 26-year-old, who conducted a golf clinic for women, at the Cosmopolitan Course, is as patient with the scribes as he was with the female golfers while teaching them the basics.

Excerpts from the interview: What made you come to Chennai?

This is my first time in Chennai. We had a great time at the course. There were 25 ladies and I basically had one-on-one golf classes with them. They were quite excited. Chennai hasn’t had a tournament for a long time. There were tournaments in Coimbatore, Bangalore, but not in Chennai. It’s very important for the city to host some tour players and for them to explore the golf clubs here. To be honest, I was amazed with the golf course. The greens are nice. I played two or three holes and I enjoyed the conditions.

How were the sessions?

Really good! We spent about two to three hours. We did ball striking, short game, putting — pretty much the basics of the game. We had a 12-year-old as well as a 68-year-old woman.

Are you satisfied with your performance this year?

I started the year well. At the HSBC tournament in Abu Dhabi, I played with Phil Mickelson, who is one of my childhood heroes, in the leader-group. There were nearly 2000 people following us. A few of them were Indians. I was quite close (to winning), but I struggled on that Sunday. But the good part is I am giving myself opportunities to be in contention. I played well in Doha. It’s just a matter of time before I click on the weekend. Once that starts happening, I will be doing much better on the Tour.

On receiving the Arjuna Award last year…

That was a great achievement for Indian golf. Before me it was Arjun Atwal, who got the award in 2007. It’s a great acknowledgement from the Sports Ministry and Sports Authority of India. I am sure that many more youngsters will get inspired to play golf because of it. In India, we have a mental block, and give awards only to people aged 30-35 or above. But I got it when I was 25. I hope it will inspire the next generation to work harder.

Of the nine PGTI victories, which one is the most memorable?

There were quite a few special ones. In 2011, I won the PGTI Players’ Championship in Chandigarh. That was special because Jeev Milkha Singh was playing. He was playing in India after a gap of nine years and was pretty much in contention. I was playing on the leader-group and he was playing in the second leader-board. There were a lot of crowd because the local hero (Jeev) was playing. That’s one thing I keep telling Jeev. “I beat you on your home course!”

I also won the Challenger Tour event in Kensville (Gujarat). It was a feeder event for the European Tour and I was the first Indian to win it. Another memorable victory was at the PGTI playoff in 2009 at Amby Valley, when I beat Himmat Rai.

For you, many victories have come following close contests?

"Indian woman Golfers are doing well. Sharmila Nicollet (in Pic.) is the youngest to qualify for the European Tour," Bhullar says.-R.V. Moorthy

Winning is always by one or two strokes. It’s tough to lead the pack till the end. But there have been tournaments where I have been the front-runner from day one. In 2012 and 13, I was the only player in the history of the Asian Tour to win two tournaments wire-to-wire — leading from day one and winning in Macau and Indonesia.

PGTI was formed in 2006, the year you turned professional. How has the PGTI helped you?

I started playing in the PGTI whenever I had time off at the Asian Tour. All my Asian Tour victories have been because of the PGTI here. All my PGTI victories gave me the needed confidence and I could graduate to the next level. PGTI has improved a lot with the introduction of the Super Series (increased prize money).

So golfers are doing well…

I do earn a lot of money, but I also end up paying (more) tax! I was the fourth richest sportsman in the country in 2009 — through my earnings and not from endorsements. There is a lot of money in golf. Jeev is the richest sportsman in India in terms of prize money. In 2006, he made USD3 million (around Rs12-13 crore).

Is money the real motivation?

Now, I don’t play for money. It’s all about the pride in representing India. It’s all for the dream and desire. Money is not everything. Touchwood, I am pretty much set for the rest of my life. My next generation is pretty much safe. Now, it’s about my hard work and all the goals that I have set for myself. Now, it’s for the love of the game.

Which was the most productive year for you?

I would say the years, 2009 and 2012. 2009 was the breakthrough year for me, as I had won a title in the Asian Tour for the first time. In 2011, I struggled a bit. I didn’t have too many good finishes. There were talks in the media that I had lost my form. 2012 was a great comeback year. I started the year as 380 in the world and I finished at 86. I was quite close to getting an invite for the Augusta Masters.

You have won five titles on the Asian Tour. But you don’t play in the Tour anymore…

This year I am not playing the Asian Tour. Last year I finished No. 5. For three years, I finished inside the top-10 in Asia. Now, I am playing on the European Tour. The goal is to make it to the PGA Tour. It’s a just matter of time. I am feeling well — good and healthy. I am working on my fitness too.

Have you set a time-frame for achieving these goals?

In golf, it doesn’t work like that. I might break into top-50 within six months, or even two months. Or it will take a year. So it’s a matter of time. Once you set a time-frame, there is bound to be a lot of pressure on you. The goal is just to play well. Once I am delivering good scores, the other things will automatically follow.

How has been your experience on the European Tour?

The competition is stiff. I have been a member of the European tour for the last three years. This year I got the full paying membership. This year there are only three Indians playing there — Jeev, Shiv Kapur and I. Now, it’s not about getting experience. Now, it’s time to deliver, execute. You can’t learn throughout your life. It’s time (for me) to execute my shots. Now, I have to win tournaments. This is my eighth year as a pro. I have gained enough experience. Absolutely, absolutely (it’s possible to win). With my game, it can happen anytime.

Is coaching really important?

I never took coaching from any world-class coaches when I started playing golf. I started in Kapurthala, Punjab. I was six when I started. Dad used to play and he taught me whatever he knew about golf. That’s how I started. It’s not about coaching alone. If you have a good golf course, you will produce a world-class golfer. It’s as simple as that. We need Government support, good public driving ranges and public golf courses. Government is doing its bit as golf is now part of the 2016 Olympics.

Tell us something about your coaches.

Jesse Agarwal was my first coach. I started working with him when I was 13. Agarwal, based in Chandigarh, is rated as one of the best in India. I worked with him for four or five years. In between, I didn’t work with anybody. Then I won PGTI and Asian Tour events. So, to move to the next level, I realised, that I needed somebody. I am now working with Peter Wolfensteter, a coach from Germany, for the last two and a half years. He is based in Munich and we meet three to four times a year. He has a world-class set-up and I go there every year around June-July.

What difference has Peter made to your game?

Ball striking. I am a much better ball striker now.

Your favourite courses.

In India, it has to be Jaypee Greens (Noida). I’ve always played well at Jaypee. I also like Amby Valley (Pune), Oxford Golf course in Pune, a very scenic course. On a free day, I would prefer these new-design courses.

And your inspirations…

I am from a sporting family. My father (H. S. Bhullar) represented India in the 400m Asian track and field meet in 1981. My uncle Ajit was a high-jumper (he took part in three Olympics and four Asian Games). So I always had that killer instinct, the drive and the desire. And that’s all you need.

How is the golfing scenario for women in India?

It’s improving. If you look at countries like China, Malaysia and Singapore, they don’t have a local tour. In India we have a local tour. The money is not that much, but it’s improving and growing every year. There are quite a few sponsors for women’s golf. And woman golfers are doing well. Sharmila Nicollet is the youngest to qualify for the European Tour. Neha Tripathi and Vaani Kapoor are also doing well. Gauri Monga is another promising golfer.

Tell us about the memorable inaugural EurAsia Cup in Kuala Lumpur.

It evokes the same feeling as the Ryder Cup. The only difference is we shook hands after the tournament, but they don’t even look at each other. The EurAsia contest was intense. We were trailing 5-0 on day one. It was a great comeback by Team Asia as the meet ended 10-10. After two rounds, Team Asia was down and out. But we went on to win seven out of the last 10 matches. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, came for the prize distribution and it was telecast live in 185 countries.