“Fair Way” – Air India Magazine
I was commissioned to write an article on the growth of women’s golf in India last November when it was still golf season. After surviving months of delay and a brutal edit cutting it into half, the story is finally published in the current issue of Air India in-flight magazine. Presented here is the uncut article, I think I owe it to the Indian pros for their valuable time and inputs shared through a series of interviews I conducted.
Women’s professional golf in India is breaking away from its niche and reaching out to a widespread participation and enhanced competition. Every year Indian ladies take on a field of internationally acclaimed players at the nation’s premier tournament— Women’s Indian Open. Initiated in 2007 by the Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI), the event has earned and strengthened its place on the Ladies Asian Golf Tour (LAGT) and Ladies European Tour (LET).
Golf doesn’t boast of massive following in India and the women’s game has an even limited reach. Nonetheless the ladies are slowly but surely creating a window for themselves. The increasing prize money indicates that patrons see their potential. Senior media person V Krishnaswamy contrasts the growth of women’s pro event with its men’s counterpart – “Men’s national open took about 30 years to reach the $300,000 figure, while the women’s tournament has achieved it in five years. As the scores improve the ladies’ game will affirm a serious reputation.”
Golf Development Consultant and CEO of AV Golf, Aashish Vaishnava recognizes the upswing – “Women’s golf has picked up in the country. Nowadays I see a lot of girls at the driving ranges.” India’s first indoor golf lounge Golfworx is also attracting people to the sport, “At Golfworx we see a lot of ladies try their hands on mini golf and then move on to the high definition simulators to swing” observes Vaishnava.
The crusade for ladies pro-golf was started by Champika Syal, Secretary General of WGAI and Smriti Mehra, India’s first and only LPGA pro. Together they conjured up a professional body with an aim to enable women to compete on an organized tour which serves as launching pad for greater honors world-wide. WGAI was formed in 2006 with motivation from golf veterans and Arjuna Awardees Sita Rawlley and Anjani Desai.
With WGAI rearing a fledgling pro-tour and the Indian Golf Union managing year round amateur championships, the talent pool is increasing. The future relies on young amateurs like Gurbani Singh, Gauri Monga, Aditi Ashok and Vani Kapoor, all of whom are doing well at domestic and international levels.
Despite the promising performances, the growth of women’s golf is limited by its reach which rarely goes beyond golfing families. Unlike men’s game which has seen caddies turn into successful pros, there are no half-bloods in the ladies department simply because the only women working around a golf course besides handful of enthusiasts are restroom attendants.
Champika Syal understands this gap and suggests that – “an equal opportunity to earn a livelihood should be created for female caddies. The game has to be taken to grassroots level as this is critical for building up the numbers. WGAI plans to reach out to socially weaker segments of society. Government institutions and corporates can play an important supporting role for this cause.” Also on the agenda are creating adequate training infrastructure and providing means of sustainable income through the sport.
With such an industry wide impetus and the contingent of talented and glamorous ladies, golf has a high prospect of becoming a popular sport.
Smriti Mehra – Challenge Accepted
Smriti Mehra, aka Simi turned pro in 1995 almost as if on a dare, “all my friends said that I don’t stand a chance,” she recalls. The dissuasion only amplified her determination, “Their reaction made me want to pursue golf all the more.” Within three years she made it to the highest ranked tour, the LPGA.
Simi never received any formal golf training, “my mother gave me a book titled Five Fundamentals of Golf by Ben Hogan, some basic equipment and said – ‘Good Luck’ – and that’s about it!” Herself a self-taught golfer she became instrumental in establishing WGAI which gives and a formal framework for ladies to pursue golf professionally. Even though the number of pros has increased from one to just about two-dozen since then, yet she considers this a decent growth rate, “All we need is just one inspiring success story and the floodgates will open. At the heart of all revolutions is the power of one.”
Highly individualist, Simi has faced a series of injuries and gone through seven surgeries in five years and yet been resilient “After all these years, I feel that I am not even half way through to being a professional golfer, but I know that my goal is clearer and closer.”
Sharmila Nicollet – Style and Substance
Sharmila Nicollet is just out of her teens and she has already topped the Order of Merit twice. In January she qualified for the European Tour becoming the youngest Indian to do so.
Ever since Sharmila turned pro in 2009, she has been making news as much for her gorgeous looks as for her game but she doesn’t let the glitz waver her focus from golf. Sharmila has a pragmatic approach towards glamour – “There are quite a few good looking ladies who play golf. The style quotient helps to create hype, and brings fame and endorsements. It is good because it can lead to sponsorships and more support for the growth of golf.”
Sharmila puts down promotion of the sport to two key factors – “Golf needs to be turned into a lucrative career and someone has to produce a breakthrough performance, like Arjun Atwal achieved when he won on PGA. These will draw more people to the ladies game and follow it seriously.” She doesn’t take comfort in reigning on the Indian tour and is objective in her assessment of the level of competition in India – “Over here even if you are 5-6 shots behind then you can still come back and win. However on an international tour the fields are so strong that the difference of a single shot can take you several positions up or down.”
Saaniya Sharma was ranked third in the Order of Merit for the previous season and has won multiple times on the Indian pro tour. She has seen the sport grow rapidly since she turned pro in 2007. “There has been a huge improvement. Earlier there used to be no guidance. Now we’ve events round the year. Especially the Indian Open has brought us a lot of exposure,” Saaniya credits the annual tournament. “I had to skip European Qualifiers due to injuries but I should be fit soon” Saaniya shares her plans.
Meghna Bal used to play for Kansas University Golf Team. She turned professional last year and has been keeping busy with the Indian Tour ever since. “The transition has been good. I’ll try for Q-school next year as this year was a little too early for me” Meghna shares her plans and hopes, “It will be great if we can have more tournaments like the Indian Open. More people in the field mean more competition which makes you push yourself and grow more as a pro. In this case, more is better!”
Ankita Tiwana is a second year student in Delhi University. She joined the professional rank last year and is trying to balance studies with career. “I am working hard on my golf but I don’t want to compromise on studies either” says Ankita who earlier took an year off from college to play golf. “Indian Open is a stepping stone for Indian pros. It is wonderful that the top four players were sponsored to go to Q-School. Events like BT Honda ProAm also bring more exposure” Ankita sees plenty of opportunities on the horizon.