Harinder gives India a fifth title

HIS eyes had a glint of tears when he touched down at Delhi after a near miss at the Busan Asian Games. He was part of the four-member Indian golf team, but on a rainy day his scores slipped.

KIRTI PATILKIRTI PATIL

HIS eyes had a glint of tears when he touched down at Delhi after a near miss at the Busan Asian Games. He was part of the four-member Indian golf team, but on a rainy day his scores slipped.

The triumphant Indian team (from left): Harinder Gupta, Jaideep Patwardhan and Keshav Mishra. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Harinder Prasad Gupta, still in his teens, had realised that a team medal was very much possible. That India missed the bronze by 17 strokes to Japan was a disappointment. His debut, as a senior, went something like this — 82, 78, 89, 91. And, there was nothing which could lift his spirits.

Just six months since that episode, Harinder is now a changed man. His self-confidence carries him well. A card of 78 would be a gross mistake because he realised that those 91 and 89 had doomed his as well as his country's chances.

Since then Harinder has groomed himself to be the flag-bearer, at least in amateur golf. In the echelon of an amateur, level-par score is a good achievement. And, if one breaks the par, a golfer earns the due respect.

Harinder achieved just that when he posted the only sub-par round on the opening day of the fifth SAARC golf championship at the Delhi Golf Club course. Then, in the course of the three days, India won the championship, for the fifth year in a row, beating Sri Lanka 3-0 in the 18-hole matchplay final.

India comprising Keshav Mishra, Jaideep Patwardhan and Harinder played consistently during the first two days of strokeplay and emerged as the top team among the five countries that took part.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of quality golf in other parts of the region, or to be precise the absence of it, the SAARC championship has been a doomed event from the start.

On its inception in 1999 in Bangalore, it was designed to `bring golfing talent of the region together to promote harmony and cooperation'. Hardly anything to that effect has been achieved. Pakistan participated in the inaugural event and then in Dhaka (2000), but the strained relationship with India has kept Pakistani golfers at bay in the next three editions.

Woefully, Bhutan and Nepal cannot be even classified as minnows. So it has always been Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which contested for the second position. But for the 2002 Gurgaon event when India met Bangladesh in the final, it had been Sri Lanka, which took on the might of India, and lost.

India's star performer Harinder Gupta in action.-- Pic: RAJEEV BHATT-

The sad part of this whole affair is that the organisers, a group of golf enthusiasts from Delhi, decided that if they get countries from the sub-continent for the championship, it could be titled as a SAARC event.

For first few years, they did not even bother to intimate the Kathmandu-based SAARC Secretariat about the championship. Understandably, in the SAARC's calender of events, there is no such mention of any golf championship.

Now it transpires that the organisers, after the Union Government objected to the use of the SAARC title, made an effort to contact the Kathmandu office.

All this started because, in 2002, they muffed up by fielding second string Indian players as the Maldives' team. The organisers further compounded their mistake by introducing the teams to the then Union Minister of State for External Affairs, Omar Abdullah.

Following the report in The Hindu, the Ministry of External Affairs made note of the issue. Clearly, it had got rubbed the wrong way.

This time around, all care was taken to avoid any such fiasco. More and more bureaucrats were involved, ministers were called for inauguration and closing ceremonies, and many top government officials were given the chance to play in the Friendship Cup, something akin to the pro-Ams played during the professional tournaments.

Sri Lanka's top-seeded player B. G. Lalitha Kumara ran into an in-form Harinder and lost on the first play-off hole. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

The three days following the Friendship Cup were meant to be for serious golf. If not all, Harinder did take it seriously. Keshav played a round of 74, Jaideep chipped in with 73 but it was Harinder who caught the imagination. Leaving aside his Asian Games blues, he smarted with 71.

Players from other countries hovered over 75 and some even crossed 90. The next day Harinder had a par, while both Jaideep and Keshav posted 71. There was no comparison between the Indians and the rest and the matchplay final was a formality.

Jaideep was first to end the humiliation of Sri Lanka's N. Amaraprathama, winning six and four. Keshav ended on the 16th hole for a three and two decision against J. M. D. Indika Santha. Harinder was down against B. G. Lalitha Kumara and the occasion provided him with the stage to prove his maturity. He did just that and after levelling the scores, he kept his cool and beat the Lankan number one on the first play-off hole.

For Harinder, this probably would somewhat erase the bad memories of the Busan Asian Games. There is, however, no comparison between the SAARC championship and the Asian Games. And, for that matter, from the 2006 Games onwards, professionals will be welcome to represent their respective countries just like the tennis players do, further widening the gap between amateurs and the pros.

Where does this leave the amateurs? The World championship for the Eisenhower Cup or the Asia-Pacific championship for the Nomura Cup. But then, the standard of Indian amateurs is nowhere near that of players of top golfing countries.

What Shiv Kapur did in the Busan Games was spectacular. He won a gold medal for India on his individual heroics. Basically, his regular practice in the U.S. — Shiv plays collegiate golf representing Purdue University — helped him to withstand the pressure. If and when Shiv decides to take a plunge in full-time golf, it would not be long for him to turn up as professional. In such a scenario, much depends on Harinder and the crop of juniors who are aspiring to take this game seriously.

Unfortunately, the avenues for amateurs are drying up fast, while the Indian professional circuit itself has become more paying. Those were the days when golfers delayed their embrace to the pro circuit in pursuit of representing the country in the Asian Games. At least there was a faint chance of winning a medal, just as Shiv Kapur struck.

Ashok Kumar is a classic example of this dilemma. In 2001, Ashok was the top amateur and was doing well even on the Indian PGA Tour. He had quite a few top 10 finishes, but since Ashok was not eligible for the cash awards his participation in the events outside northern region was restricted.

Then, one fine day, news came that pros would be eligible to participate in the Asian Games. After seeking advice from his mentors, Ashok took a plunge in the pro circuit, at the 2002 Hero Honda Masters, an event on the Asian PGA Tour.

Korea, however, refused to execute the decision of the Olympic Council of Asia, and stuck with the amateurs for the 2002 Games. That chance was gone, but today Ashok is one of the top five on the money list of the Indian PGA Tour. By winning just one tournament of the 21 he took part, he has made upwards of Rs. 8.5 lakh in just one season.

As far as Indian golfers are concerned, there definitely are good avenues for them to look out for. While the top league players are eying the U.S. tours, after having played on the European equivalent, many are on the Asian PGA. And, still there is enough money in India for the starters.

But what about others from the region? Though Nepal and Bangladesh have become regular venues on the Indian PGA Tour, these countries have yet to produce class players. The courses and the organisers have made money, but without any player of calibre to show, for, the popularity of the game is just about academic.

Sri Lanka is another destination where the Indian PGA would like to travel. The island nation has some beautiful courses, and it would not be long before the Indian bandwagon moves there.

The scores:

Final (18-hole matchplay): India beat Sri Lanka 3-0 (Harinder Gupta bt B. G. Lalitha Kumara 19th hole; Jaideep Patwardhan bt N. Amaraprathama 6 and 4; Keshav Mishra bt J. M. D. Indika Santha 3 and 2).

Qualifying round (after 36-hole strokeplay): 1. India 286 (144 — Harinder Gupta 71, Jaideep Patwardhan 73; 142 — Keshav Mishra 71, Patwardhan 71); 2. Sri Lanka 304 (153 — B. G. Lalitha Kumara 75, N. Amaraprathama 78; 151 — Lalitha Kumara 74, J. M. D. Indika Santha 77); 3. Bangladesh 315 (159 — Mohammed Siddikur Rehman 77, Mohammed Milon Ahammad 82; 156 — Rehman 72, Ahammad 84); 4. Nepal 327 (168 — C. B. Bhandari 80, Tashi Ghale 88; 159 — Bhandari 78, Tashi Ghale 81); 5. Bhutan 358 (183 — Dawo Penjore 87, Karma Lama96; 175 — Lama 82, Penjore 93).