Page last updated at 08:12 GMT, Monday, 3 May 2010 09:12 UK

Golf comes to the fore in India

By Shilpa Kannan
BBC News, Delhi

Jeev Milkha Singh - the highest ranked Indian golfer
Jeev Milkha Singh says more sponsors need to come through

It's a bright summer day and urban Indians are out wearing their Sunday best.

As they sample the wines and hors d'oeuvres, the conversation is centred on birdies, eagles and handicaps.

And along with their designer sunglasses and Burberry golf bags, they have brought out their irons.

In a sign of the country's booming economy, rich Indians are taking to the greens increasingly.

The most well-known face in the sport is Jeev Milkha Singh, the highest-ranked Indian golfer and the first to break into the top 50 in the world.

'Not cricket'

Golf may still be an expensive sport, but the rise of golfers like him has helped popularise the sport across all economic sections.

"It's not like cricket - it can never be like cricket," he says.

"I feel more sponsors need to come through and they need to help the kids who are coming up and give them some kind of support.

Sunday golfers in India
Golf is promoted mainly among middle-aged and older population

"Then they can prove themselves and have less pressure when they go out on the international circuit."

Unlike traditional golf markets where the sport is promoted mainly among the middle-aged and older population, golf in India is generating a huge following among young people and children from middle-class families.

These are people who can afford to pay for expensive lessons and are keen to take it up as a career.

The country boasts of more than 500,000 people who play golf - many of whom play regularly. This number is expected to grow rapidly.

'Big part of life'

Veteran coaches Karan Bindra and Anitya Chand say that they have seen a surge in interest in the sport among children as young as five.

Parents, too, are keen to encourage their children to become career golfers.

Many junior players are regularly competing in tournaments, both in India and abroad.

Vani Kapoor
Vani Kapoor plays every day after school

Sixteen-year-old Vani Kapoor has been playing for five years and has the top position on the women's order of merit list.

"I want to take up golf as a career - I practise every day after school. It's a big part of my life," she says.

Meanwhile, Piyush Sangwan, a 12-year-old who has been playing golf for the past eight years, is no less keen.

"I want to be the next Tiger Woods.," he says. "I dream of golf even when I sleep."

He recently won the top honours in the under-13 category in the True Vision International Junior Golf Championship at Thailand.

'Money in it'

In recent years, there has also been a rise in the number of tournaments held in the country.

The most anticipated one is the $2m Avantha Masters, which is a tri-sanctioned event with the support of the Asian Tour, European Tour and Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI).

Padamjit Sandhu, the director of PGTI, says that golf is seen as a viable career option in India today.

Players practise for the Avantha Masters,
More top tournaments are coming to India

"How does any sport get the popularity and how do the masses start to relate to it?" he asks.

"One, your players start to perform - and two, there is money in it. So a lot of people can look at the sport as a career option.

"In the last couple of years, we have been able to achieve that kind of penetration or a mindset within India that golf as a sport can be taken up as a career."

Executive skills

Mr Sandhu says that players do not necessarily win tournaments to secure lucrative financial rewards - participating and performing well at a high level automatically brings "big bucks".

"I want to tell people that being a professional golfer is comparable to any executive job with a multinational," he adds.

Golf's growth is also getting a boost from real estate developers, who are building luxury residences alongside golf courses, such as the Arnold Palmer-designed course outside Delhi called the DLF Golf & Country Club.

Prices of houses there start at $4m.

"There are several golf courses under construction across the country," says Aakash Ohri, the director of DLF Golf resorts.

"It's not just the initial investment, but the operations cost of running a golf course is very high. The saving grace is the real estate associated with it."

He also adds that building golf courses is essential to increase the accessibility of the sport.

From just six courses in the 1960s, there are about 250 now, with another 50 being built across India.

This will increase access to the sport, not just in major cities, but in smaller towns as well.

Infrastructure issues

But can you really sell $1m club memberships in a country where the majority of people don't earn enough to be able to buy a golf club?

As the infrastructure looks set to improve, it will bring more people into golf
Vivek Mehta, Callaway Golf India

"It's not the cost associated with golf which is limiting people from getting into the sport," says Vivek Mehta of Callaway Golf India.

"It's the infrastructure - it's the number of academies in the country, the number of golf courses and the driving ranges.

"But now as the infrastructure looks set to improve, it will bring more people into golf."

Although big businesses are involved and it has celebrity endorsement, golf is still an expensive sport in the country, limited to the elite few who can afford expensive private clubs.

There are very few courses offering full access to the public.

But with the inclusion of golf in the 2016 summer Olympics, the Indian government will now fund state-run subsidised courses.

Both golf enthusiasts and businesses will be betting on this to boost golf's popularity even further.

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