They win big on the international circuit and they’re always ready in time for school. India’s junior golfers find it challenging to balance play with studies, but on the golfing green they have become a force to reckon with. Priya Singh writes about India’s golf prodigies. 

 

“I have always thought of golf as my prime priority,” says Arjun Bhati, the 14-year-old golfer who recently won top honours at the US Kids Golf World Championship 2018. The tournament was hosted in December last year in Malaysia, with some 350 young golfers from 29 countries among the participants competing in various age brackets. Arjun came first in the 13-14 years category, becoming the only Indian golfer to do so not once but twice—he was the winner of the 2016 tournament as well.

Today, Arjun’s only goal is to hone his game further and to prepare himself for a successful future in professional golf. “I see myself as nothing else but a golfer in the future. I want to become the world’s number one golf player among professional golfers. I want to make my country and my parents proud. I want to bring an Olympic gold medal to my country,” he tells Guardian 20.

A ninth standard student at the Great Valley School in Noida, Arjun was introduced to golf in 2013, when he was participating in a school summer camp where golf was listed as an activity. “Although I had an idea as to what golf was like, I wanted to explore more about the game,” he says. And so, the nine-year-old neophyte began his journey into the world of junior golf, not knowing that he would conquer the field within a five-year span.

Arjun Bhati.

Though his golfing career is yet brief, Arjun has already amassed a fairly large collection of trophies. Besides his two international wins, he has won nine national tournaments over the last few years. How does a teenager manage to attain this level of excellence in any field, let alone in the super-competitive realm of sport? The answer is through commitment, and through practice—hours and hours of unremitting on-field training plus regular fitness sessions. “I give about four to five hours daily to my golf practice, and about two hours to my fitness. I practice putting, chipping and the long game during my golf practice. Along with that I read about golf for an hour daily—it is really important to keep yourself updated about the new rules that are being implemented.”

But mastering your chips and drives doesn’t make it any easier to juggle between your life on and off the golf course. For all his golfing achievements, Arjun still has his studies to take care of. He says, “It is really difficult to manage both at the same time, but what I do is take permitted leaves from the school about 10-15 days prior to my tournaments and practice sessions.” A golfing prodigy has to manage more than his game. Arjun, like many other high-achieving junior golfers in India, understands that full well.

Kartik Singh with his coach Raju James Joseph.

Golf is far from a mass sport in this country. Yet over the last decade its popularity has seen an unprecedented spike, especially among urban kids. It is not just that thousands of kids in cities like Noida, Gurgaon and Bangalore have become interested in the sport; what’s extraordinary is how widely and quickly that interest is developing into professional-grade talent.

Take the case of the eight-year-old Kartik Singh, who won the US Kids Golf World Championship 2018 in the under-eight category. Kartik started playing golf around three years ago, when he was five. With his game today he is making senior golfers around the world sit up and take notice. His talent was spotted early, when a golf coach recommended to his father that Kartik be taken to a more golf-friendly city. So the family relocated from Kochi to Gurgaon.

Dhananjay Singh, Kartik’s father, says, “My wife took up a job in Gurgaon for a while. She and Kartik lived alone here while I was back in Kochi. I only joined them in May 2018. It might seem odd to a lot of people that we uprooted our life for his golf, but he has started to show now why that was necessary.”

Both Kartik and Arjun made a name for themselves by performing well at US Kids Golf tournaments, a much sought-after forum in junior golf. Ronit Bose, tour director, US Kids Golf India, has followed the progress the sport has made in India at close quarters. According to him, the rise in junior golf can be explained in terms the changing mindset of coaches and golf club owners.

“The main and most important reason for this sudden spurt [in junior golf] can be attributed to the setup of golf courses as per the ‘age group specific distances’ of the kids rather than in the old fashioned way of making them play from the existing yardage meant for fully grown adult men and women,” he says.

Recent successes in junior golf can also be attributed to the increase in golfing facilities and infrastructure across India. In Gurgaon alone, there are over a dozen world-class golf courses, many of which routinely host international tournaments. Besides, aspiring players now have a ready access to practice facilities and certified coaches.

Golfer Shubhankar Sharma conducting a masterclass for kids at the DLF Golf Academy, Gurgaon.

“Junior golf has been on the rise in India for more than 15 years now,” says Karan Bindra, director, DLF Golf Academy. “Most golf clubs now have a well-established junior programme and encourage juniors. Good golf instruction at an early age is the biggest asset in the development of a young golfer. The success that Indian golfers have had on the international stage has encouraged juniors to work towards similar goals. All these are the right ingredients in producing young champions.”

But what about other cities and small towns? Is the sport still restricted to the handful of golfing hubs in metropolitan India? Bindra says, “There is surely a limitation in smaller towns in this respect. But it is only a matter of time that the game develops in smaller towns just as it has in the metros over the last two decades.”

But Ronit Bose of US Kids Golf India takes a different view of the matter. According to him, “Infrastructure, in terms of golf courses and practice facilities exist in all cities and small towns. They are mostly lying under utilised, most of the time, especially on weekdays.” He calls for a “coordinated effort by clubs to promote and market this game to youngsters”. “A nominal usage charge will drive massive participation into these facilities. This increased participation will in turn support coaches and other stakeholders increase their revenue and in turn make them want to improve their own selves more to support the increased participation. It all starts from getting people interested and giving them access to existing facilities. When these facilities get filled up then we can discuss the lack of facilities and infrastructure.”

 

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