x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Contrasting pair clubs together for a better future of Pakistan golf

Jahangir and Masih are relishing the chance to play with the best and improve the sport's standing in the country.

Shafiq Masih, top, and Adil Jehangir, next, have contrasting backgrounds. While Jehangir is a business administration graduate, Masih is the archetypal, rural and poor, caddie-turned-professional golfer.
Shafiq Masih, top, and Adil Jehangir, next, have contrasting backgrounds. While Jehangir is a business administration graduate, Masih is the archetypal, rural and poor, caddie-turned-professional golfer.

To most of the established golf world, Shafiq Masih representing a majority and Adil Jahangir the minority would appear to be the wrong way round.

One of the first things Masih, now 35, says is "I'm not a rich guy," and implies that it isn't just a passing phase.

He speaks English proudly and haltingly, but insistingly, as an accomplishment.

Jahangir, 26, is a business administration graduate, and says - not looking down but as matter-of-fact - "I'm probably the only person with my education and background to turn pro [in Pakistan]."

He speaks English without thought, as first nature.

Golf has changed - is changing - of course, but it has yet to fully shed the impression that it is a sport for the wealthy.

In much of the developing world, as a pastime, it is within the reach of only the elite, a release presumably from the pressures of being too rich.

But professionally this order actually makes sense in Pakistan, where the vast bulk of professional golfers start off as caddies and caddies, might it be added, in the older fashion with its implications of working-class subservience fully intact.

The well-to-do do not do professional sport in Pakistan; they simply do whatever has kept their families well to do.

In all sports, including golf, the Pakistan archetype is a young and poor (and often rural) kind, having found a way through unaided, but for a little fortune and much greater fortitude. So Jahangir, as he acknowledges, is actually the misfit here.

The pair are part of a group of seven Pakistani golfers taking part in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) golf tour, a four-event competition in the UAE that runs through September and October.

At the end of this rainbow lies the chance to play in the Dubai Desert Classic and possibly even European tour events in the region. It is a rare opportunity for Pakistani golfers to set themselves against those from other countries.

The golf scene in Pakistan, much like a rave populated exclusively by the 50-plus, is not much of a scene at all. It is not alone in taking a distant seat far behind cricket, which is not so much sport now as a national habit.

It suffers from afflictions common to all other sports in the country: not enough sponsorship, not enough attention, not enough space for people to play in, not enough success stories. Its own requirements - of a course, of clubs, of membership - make it harder still to reach out.

But it is a devoted little community, like a subculture almost, according to the picture drawn by Asad Khan, an executive committee member of the Pakistan Golf Federation (PGF) and a senior figure on Sindh's golf scene.

The armed forces have always taken the keenest interest in the game which explains its resilience; the army's influence on the political scene has rarely borne fruit but their commendable dedication to non-traditional sports has gone largely under-appreciated. The current army chief is a keen golfer and sits as president of the PGF. A number of courses are run by the forces.

The PGF was set up as early as 1960 and there are now over 40 clubs registered around the country. "There are probably about 20 to 30 courses of a reasonable standard here and around 120 to 130 registered professional golfers," says Khan.

"Over the last 15 years, the professional scene has begun to finally surface."

Over 20 tournaments are held annually and the centrepiece, the Pakistan Open, was even on the Asian Tour until growing security concerns - and especially the terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in March 2009 - scuttled those ambitions. But the prize money, Khan points out, remains pitiably low.

"The highest is around 3.5 million Pakistan rupees (Dh147,000) and the winner will get around 17 per cent of that."

A top player can, on average, make up to 100,000 rupees a month on the local tour; some way above peanuts, but quite some way below a respectable bounty.

Within that spectrum, we find Jahangir and Masih, different routes bringing them to the same destination.

Jahangir turned professional last year, having represented the Pakistan amateur team over seven years. Masih has only now made the significant transition from a golf professional - who caddies and coaches in clubs - to professional golfer.

Both came to golf through family; Jahangir accompanied the weekend golfing capers of his father in Lahore as a child, taking up the game when he was eight and using a five-iron cut for his size. Masih also accompanied his father as a 10-year-old to watch his cousin, Hafeez Masih, play tournaments in Lahore.

Jahangir dreamt of turning professional early, was able to afford his own equipment and was told by his parents to complete his education before joining the sport's paid ranks. Masih became a caddie, took part in a caddie tournament when he was 17 and as an unknown, finished second.

Members were impressed and so began the system of private, individual patronage on which most professional golfers in Pakistan survive: rich members who donate clubs, equipment, even money so that men such as Masih - "Ninety nine per cent of pro golfers in Pakistan are caddies who rely on this," says Khan - can continue.

It is a very Pakistani remedy; individual goodwill trying desperately (not fully succeeding for now) to counter institutional failure.

Masih is grateful for what he has, a fruitful life built off what would have been a prohibitive game. He has thought several times about giving the game up and the switch to professional came only after much procrastination.

"When I was young my worry was that my sisters get married before I do," he says.

"I didn't think that could happen from playing golf so I started coaching, and even did a stint in Saudi Arabia after which I nearly left the game.

"But now, I can run my kitchen from golf, this is my profession. It is so difficult you can't imagine but the clubs let us play, members help us out and now I can play full-time again. It's a blessing."

Jahangir is restless, angling for change. It was he who rounded up players for Mena, he who talks of the need for greater sponsorship from the corporate sector.

"The talent is phenomenal here but lack of sponsorship is the biggest problem," he says.

"They'll get equipment from members easily but many of them are not confident when they go play abroad, they struggle with the interaction. Nobody was planning on coming for Mena but they had to be persuaded and convinced."

Masih actually said no first because he felt he couldn't afford the approximately US$3,000 (Dh11,000) needed to be in the UAE for a month ("But then I thought, let's risk it,").

It is Jahangir who talks of the need to set up a separate players' body and it is he who may end up being an important figure in Pakistan golf. "We're trying to set a body up for players because it is absolutely necessary," he says.

"The PGF concentrates mostly on amateurs. We need guys to bring in money for the professionals. In India, the tour has become so lucrative that their players don't need to go abroad."

Representatives of the body have already been elected though the body has not yet been sanctioned by the PGF. "It will eventually get it because the writing is on the wall," says Khan.

"It has happened in India and it has to happen here."

Meanwhile, Jahangir and Masih mingle and impress in the UAE. The latter started strong at the Abu Dhabi Golf Citizen Open last week, aided by what he calls immodestly, his "God-given swing".

Eventually he finished seventh, nine shots off the winner Zane Scotland. Jahangir ended a further stroke behind.

At the ongoing Ras Al Khaimah Classic, Jahangir ended the first day just two shots behind the leader at three under. Masih had a poor day, finishing four over par.

Not that it is likely to matter much. "I'm only playing against the courses here, not anybody else," Masih says.

"I can't believe they've made such beautiful courses in the desert."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Osman Samiuddin on @OsmanSamiuddin