India the true sleeping giant of golf, led by likes of Anirban Lahiri and Gaganjeet Bhullar
For the better part of the past decade, with euros, dollars or dirhams in their eyes, the largely contracting game of golf has cast a covetous look towards the east when looking for new markets to grow the game.
One nation has been repeatedly examined with regard to its potential for explosive growth, given its massive population base, expanding middle class and increasing influence in the world marketplace.
All these years later, perhaps the expansionists mis-clubbed and missed the better target. The Asian country showing the most impressive golf growth spurt, at least professionally, has been India, which shares many of the same economic signposts as their northern neighbour.
The expanding Indian economy has produced something that China cannot match, at least at this point: a pipeline of golfers who have made an impact on regional tours and beyond.
Players such as Arjun Atwal and Daniel Chopra have won on both the PGA and European tours, and Jeev Milka Singh has been a steady wage-earner in the global game for years. But the month of February has been one of the most successful in the nation’s history, given that previously unheralded Anirban Lahiri jumped not only to the front of the Indian line of ascension, but the global pecking order, too.
His victory Sunday in the Indian Open was his second European Tour win of the month, which is almost inconceivable, given that he is a rookie who had no European status last fall. He is poised to blow past the mark of Singh – who reached No 28 in 2009 – as the highest-ranked Indian.
“It’s hard to come to terms with,” said Lahiri, 27, after winning a play-off for his national open title last weekend at Delhi Golf Club. “Just six months back, I was in Spain at qualifying school and really relieved, having stared at not having my card with five holes to go. So it feels like I’ve skipped a couple of steps to get to where I am right now.”
He had five wins on the third-tier Asian Tour, but his recent victories have catapulted him to No 34 in the world and given him a place in the Masters and the two upcoming World Golf Championships, including next week’s event at Trump Doral Golf Resort in Miami. A spot on the Presidents Cup roster is within reach, too.
“Now the whole world is opened to me,” he said. “I’m really excited. This is what dreams are made of.”
The son of an army officer, Lahiri grew up playing military courses, similar to a former world No 1 named Tiger Woods. Lahiri beat Woods in an exhibition skins game during the latter’s exhibition fee-driven visit to India last year, though few fans outside India knew who he was.
That is obviously changing, albeit slowly. Lahiri has about 1,400 followers in his Twitter account.
There are others looking to gain a foothold, too. Thirteen months ago, Gaganjeet Bhullar, now 26, played with Phil Mickelson in the penultimate group of the final round at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Mickelson peppered the star-struck Bhullar with questions about golf in India.
We are all learning some of the answers. For instance, India has eight players ranked in the world top 450, to China’s three. Rahil Gangjee, 36, an Indian veteran on the Asian Tour who ranks 349 in the world, is excited for his countrymen and their prospects.
“It’s very exciting times,” Gangjee told GolfingIndian.com. “It has the Indians excited, it’s a good way to start the year for the Indian players.
“I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen the older guys play, the younger guys play, and I tell you what, there is no lack of talent, there is no lack of commitment. These younger guys are really, really good.”
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Updated: February 25, 2015 04:00 AM