Winds of Change Blowing in Sri Lanka

Navratna Ahmedabad with the Louis Philippe Cup after winning the title for the thrid year in succession. The three-member team comprised Vinod Kumar (extreme left), Mithun Perera (extreme right) and captain Vikrant Chopra (second from right).-Navratna Ahmedabad with the Louis Philippe Cup after winning the title for the thrid year in succession. The three-member team comprised Vinod Kumar (extreme left), Mithun Perera (extreme right) and captain Vikrant Chopra (second from right).

“In the next two to three years, Sri Lanka can become a really good golfing destination in Asia,” says Mithun Perera, who led Navratna Ahmedabad to victory in the Louis Philippe Cup recently. By Nandakumar Marar.

After a birdie putt on the par-5 18th at the BPGC (Bombay Presidency Golf Course) greens, Mithun Perera was lifted off the ground by delirious team-mates. The stocky Sri Lankan (two-under 68) had defeated Puravankara Bangalore’s M. Dharma (one-under 69) in the deciding singles tie and sealed the title for Navratna Ahmedabad in the 3rd Louis Philippe Cup golf tournament.

The nine-team PGTI pro league witnessed some of the big names in action — US-returned Rahil Gangjee (AVT Kolkata), India’s highest-ranked pro Anirban Lahiri (Puravankara Bangalore), Bangladesh ace Siddikur Rahman (DLF Gurgaon), Gaganjeet Bhullar (Jaypee Greens Noida), S. S. P. Chowrasia (TAKE Chennai) and Jyoti Randhawa (Dev Ellora Laqshya Mumbai). However, watching a Lankan pro grab the attention appeared strange initially, but then match-winners carve their own route to the top.

Perera came into the event on the back of two consecutive victories at the Eagleton Open (Bangalore) and the Standard Chartered Open. The pressure was on him to replicate the form for another week in a team format (three pros a side each). The Lankan established a course record eight-under at the par-70 course in the league phase; he then won crucial singles ties in the match-play semi-finals in stroke-play format.

“We rallied well as a team, supported each other and were confident that we could do it,” said Mithun, who then joined his team-mates Vikrant Chopra (Noida Golf Course) and Vinod Kumar (Delhi Golf Club) in the celebration marked by the donning of the maroon jackets and champagne spraying.

Vikrant went down in the first head-to-head singles to the classy Lahiri. Vinod (two-under 68) surprised the Bangalore sensation, S. Chikkarangappa (one-under 69). With the winner’s prize of Rs. 36 lakh at stake and the teams level at 1-1, Mithun showed the kind of strides Sri Lankan professional golf has made thanks to the opportunities it had on the Indian Tour.

Dharma, who was ranked No. 8 in the PGTI last year and had seven top 10 finishes, found the 27-year-old Lankan too hot to handle. Two other Lankan golfers in the tournament, K. Prabagaran and N. Thangaraja, represented Krrish Colombo, which won the third place, defeating AVT Kolkata.

“Our boys are doing well. Four Lankans in the top 12 on the Indian Tour are making money and living a luxurious life. The juniors see us and realise they too can enjoy life’s luxuries after turning pro. Players back home invest a lot of time and money on the game. That is the secret of Lanka’s success,” said Mithun, whose PGTI Tour earnings for 2013 was Rs. 14,73,160. The corresponding figures of Prabagaran and Thangaraja were Rs. 12,68,330 and Rs. 14,70,221 respectively.

“The Colombo Golf Club started in 1879, so the sport (in Lanka) has a tradition. Our first pro event was held in 2012. We struggled a long time due to internal conflict which is now over. When the problems were going on, sponsors did not know when the next event would be held. A major pro event in 1997 had to be scrapped due to a bomb blast. The sponsor had invested money, but never returned. Now investors are coming in. I have private sponsors, so do the other pros,” Mithun pointed out.

“In the next two to three years, Sri Lanka can become a really good golfing destination in Asia. Government and private companies lend support; armed forces are building golf courses because they see a future for the sport. The Sri Lankan Golf Union is setting up programmes all over the country. Private clubs support juniors by going to schools and picking young talent and offering facilities like training free of charge.”

When asked about the background of pro golfers coming out of Lanka, Mithun said, “People think golf is a rich man’s game. Players come from the bottom (section of society). The people in charge now realise that targeting juniors is the way to improve the future. We hand out brand new balls, gloves etc. to youngsters.”

Incidentally, Mithun’s father Nandasena introduced him to the sport.

“Thangaraja came from a poor family, but once he got into golf he made the most of the opportunities, winning events on the Indian Tour. Prabagaran spent a lot of time in amateur golf, suffered injuries and is now back on the circuit. Both lived near golf courses and so were exposed to the game very early. For them, life was golf. Nobody back home knew about their performances, now corporates are interested,” said Mithun.

The Sri Lankan has a passion for collecting stamps. Now, winning golf trophies and prize money cheques is becoming a habit with him. Mithun, at one time, had dreamt of a football career, but soon realised that golf is what he does best. “My goal is to enter as many events as possible on the Asian Tour,” he said.

Arthritis cut short his father’s golfing ambition, but Mithun understood the depth of his achievements. “My father was a pro golfer; he won an Asian Games silver medal. He was a good friend of Vijay Singh (the ace golfer of Indian origin from Fiji) and would have been playing the PGA Tour but for health problem,” said Mithun, who hoped that pro golfers would be allowed to compete in the Asian Games, just as in the Rio Olympics where the world’s top pros will be seen in action.

For now, he is focussed on building his reputation in India and Asia; travelling with his driver and putter so that youngsters back home can be inspired to take the same route.

CONTIUNUITY PAYS

Navratna Ahmedabad reaped rich rewards for continuity and the mutual trust between its owners Devang Shah and Pranav Shah and the players. The team fielded professionals Mithun Perera, Vikrant Chopra and Vinod Kumar for all three editions of the Louis Philippe Cup, which resulted in two titles.

The 2014 champion, Ahmedabad, received the winner’s cheque of Rs. 36 lakh following its 2-1 victory over Puravankara Bangalore in the final. The runner-up won Rs. 24 lakh.

Krrish Colombo, which won the third place in the inter-city pro league, promoted by Rishi Narain Golf Management, took home Rs. 18 lakh.

The scores: Final: Navratna Ahmedabad beat Puravankara Bangalore 2-1 (Vikrant Chopra 71 lost to Anirban Lahiri 70; Vinod Kumar 68 beat S. Chikkarangappa 69; Mithun Perera 68 beat M. Dharma 69).

3-4 places: Krrish Colombo beat AVT Kolkata 2-1 (Himmat Rai 71 beat Shankar Das 72, Prabhagaran 71 lost to Rahil Gangjee 67, N. Thangaraja 70 beat Chiragh Kumar 71.

5-6 places: DLF Gurgaon beat TAKE Chennai 3-0;

7-8 places: Shubhkamna Delhi beat Jaypee Greens Noida 2-1.