This is only the beginning

GOLF is certainly looking up in India. The gradual evolution of self-belief for an Indian professional golfer that began with Ali Sher's epoch-making victory in the Indian Open in 1991 has taken a more decisive shape in recent years.

GOLF is certainly looking up in India. The gradual evolution of self-belief for an Indian professional golfer that began with Ali Sher's epoch-making victory in the Indian Open in 1991 has taken a more decisive shape in recent years. As of now, the cherry atop the Indian cake is the qualification of Arjun Atwal to the next USPGA Tour.

Not many are aware that golf in India came before cricket and billiards, the two other disciplines that were part of the British legacy. In fact, India was the first country outside Great Britain to take up the game.

The Royal Calcutta Golf Club, the country's first golf course established in 1829, beat the similar firsts in United States and mainland Europe by 59 years! Then why have we taken so long to make a beginning?

The answer is not too far to seek. Professionalism in Indian sport is a recent phenomenon. In fact, even up to the late eighties, amateurs called the shots. After Billoo Sethi won the Indian Open in 1965, the coveted title was beyond the best of the Indian pros, who continued to play like amateurs.

When the team and individual golds of the 1982 Asian Games came India's way, it did a world of good to the pride of Indian amateurs.

But much has happened in the last 13 years. If Ali Sher's Indian Open success of 1991 and 1993 proved a fantastic advertisement for the country's caddie-turned pros, Gaurav Ghei's incredible chipped-eagle to win the $500,000 Gadgil Western title in 1995 did wonders to the confidence of gentlemen pros.

Since then, the Asian PGA has given the golfers of the country just the kind of stage they needed to test their skills.

Come to think of it, of the 13 APGA events held in the country so far, 10 have been shared by Arjun Atwal, Jyoti Randhawa (three each), Harmeet Kahlon, Vijay Kumar, Feroz Ali and Gaurav Ghei. If one looks at the Indian winners on the APGA Tour, the number is a staggering 18, with Atwal alone accounting for six.

But one must not forget the role of India's domestic tour in helping our players reach greater heights.

Today, the tour offers 25 weeks of competition and Rs. 2.4 crore in prize-money. Not so long ago, who would have believed that an Indian tour could produce millionaires. No wonder, it makes a good career option.

The consistently low winning scores on the Indian Tour is another good yardstick of gauging the improvement in Indian golfing standards. Rohtas Singh, winner of more than 100 titles on the Indian Tour, confesses that most of his winning scores were over par. "For a few seasons now, no one has won by returning even par for four rounds,'' says Rohtas as he makes a point.

The success of the Indian golfers has brought back the corporate interest with a vengeance. Courses designed by golfing greats like Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, etc. have given the Indian golfers, both pros and amateurs, a `feel' of the kind of challenges the `big' boys love to face.

Growing interest in golf has also helped in enhancing accessibility to quality golfing equipment. Every worthy pro-shop in the country today offers world-class equipment. Never mind the price, at least, it is available.

The consistency with which the Indian golfers have brought cheerful news, not only from Asia but also the Japanese and the European Tours, has increased the interest of the media.

Ghei's victory over Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, his maiden qualification to the British Open, Jeev becoming the first Indian to qualify for the US Open and then making the `cut', Randhawa winning a title on the Japanese Tour or Atwal winning two titles on the European Tour, the media, by and large, has given these achievements due importance.

With Randhawa and Atwal topping the Asian Tour Order of Merit, for the last two seasons, by turns, it is sure to encourage more Indian pros to play regularly in Asia. And Atwal becoming the first millionaire out of the APGA, should inspire amateurs, including the 2002 Asian Games gold medallist Shiv Kapur, to turn pro.

Even as golf grows in stature in the country, all eyes will be on the progress of Arjun Atwal in the USPGA, where he will be rubbing shoulders with some of the greats, more frequently than before. Finally, an Indian golfing ambassador has made to the Tour for which the professionals live for.