Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tee-time for caddy golfers

(Also in M - http://www.msutras.com/)
Muniyappa’s story is proof that a golf caddy could soon be the rich man whose bag he’s carrying today and also bring India our next Olympic medal
Something quite significant took place the other day. A 33-year-old man named Chinnaswamy Muniyappa won the most important golf tournament in the country around the second week of October. Before the Indian Open started, not many outside of the Karnataka Golf Association had heard of Muniyappa. Now, he is the placed sixth in the Asian Tour Order of Merit with earnings of $ 215,516.

All of this is momentous because Muniyappa was, until recently, a caddie. You know, the man who carries the rich man-cum-recreational golfer’s heavy kitbag on his shoulders on the golf course while the big business deals are sealed? Yeah, that’s what Muniyappa was. Back in those days, he earned a rupee for an hour’s work. He is now the sixth richest golfer in Asia.

“My parents used to work at the Karnataka Golf Association,” Muniyappa says. “I never thought of playing, but watched people play. I was happy with the 1 rupee I got every hour. But the other caddies would cut branches and play in the evenings. I did too. It was fun, but with a wooden club, the ball would only go around 75 yards.”

Things started getting serious only when, at age 12 after playing with the wooden club for five years or so, Muniyappa got his first real club – a used 7-iron a KGA member parted with. All the way to the 2009 Indian Open title.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Quite the script for a 1970s Hindi blockbuster flick.

But remarkable as Muniyappa’s story is, it isn’t a first in Indian golf. Or, for that matter, in world golf.

In India, the story starts with Ali Sher. 1991. The Indian Open. The first time an Indian golfer won the title, and broke the stranglehold of the foreigners. Importantly, the little man with the big heart was also a caddie-turned-golfer. Someone who, like Muniyappa but two decades before him, also “cut branches to make wooden clubs, watched the good players play, learnt the sport and then became obsessed with it”, as Sher puts it.

Ditto with Kolkata-based caddy-turned-golf heroes Jamshed Ali (1970s), Basad Ali (1980s), and Feroze Ali and SSP Chowrasia (1990s).

The point, though, is that this isn’t all that surprising. It’s widely accepted that, like tennis markers, golf caddies are the quickest learners of their sport. They are in a prime position to pick up technical nuances because they watch decent players playing all the time. They are seeped in the game through the day, every working day. If the best of them don’t become golfers themselves, they become a Fanny Sunesson – easily the world’s most famous caddie; a woman in a man’s game. She shouldered Nick Faldo’s ‘burden’ for ten years before ‘dumping’ him for Henrik Stenson. Sunesson’s resignation letter coincided with Faldo’s decline. Faldo won four Majors while Sunesson was around, and even rehired her for a while after the split – but the magic had faded.

This brings us to a difficult question: why aren’t there more caddy golfers then? If caddies can become such super golfers, then why not have programmes where caddies can be nurtured as potential golfers, instead of a handful of caddies becoming good golfers by sheer individual hard work, perseverance and big dollops of luck?

You want to know why this needs to be done, and done desperately? It’s because we are in the process of moving away from golf being an elite sport to becoming a mass sport. It’s going to be part of the Olympic Games from 2016 in Rio de Janeiro after all. It’s not going to be a sport of the elite. It’s going to be a sport where nations compete. For the most important gold medal in the world of sport.

And you know why India must have a programme at the earliest? It’s because golf is among the few sports in the country that is not governed by a federation run by the government. Like cricket. There isn’t a politician at the helm of affairs who does nothing to improve the sport – like is the case with every single Olympic sport in the country.

Do you know how players like Digvijay Singh reacted upon hearing the news that golf will be included in the 2016 Olympics? While the rest of the golfing world was celebrating, Digvijay said, “I don’t want Suresh Kalmadi (President, Indian Olympic Association) or anyone else to look into the golfers’ future at all. There is enough mess in every other sport in the country.”

We do have Jeev Milkha Singh. As well as Jyoti Randhawa, Arjun Atwal, Shiv Kapur and Gaganjeet Bhullar. But are they good enough to bring us a medal from Rio? Good as they are, can we count on them to deliver against Tiger Woods and the rest of the top golfers of the world?

Could the answer then lie in a Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) nationwide programme to ‘create’ talent? Or, for that matter, ‘tap’ talent? From where? Yes, the talent pool that already exists in the form of the caddy brigade. To repeat, people who love the game, know the game and are part of the game, but not quite.

As things stand at the moment, caddies get interested in golf by being involved with the sport as a career, earning a pittance, starting to play with hand-me-down clubs from club members and occasionally, only occasionally, becoming good enough to become a pro. Clubs do help, but not in a deliberate or organised fashion. Ravi Puri, CEO of the Classic Golf Resort in Manesar, explains, “Most clubs let caddies use the facilities after the playing hours for the members are over. Imagine, you have the entire course, the driving ranges and the putting greens at your disposal. Maybe you don’t have a good kit or a coach, but you do have everything else. And then, most members will change their kits from time to time, and the old kits are handed down to the caddies.”

Doesn’t sound like a bad deal. But there’s no plan in place anywhere. There’s no target. There’s no objective. Is any of that really programmed to produce India’s next golf hero?

True, caddy tournaments have become fairly popular across the country now. Like the All India Invitational Caddies Tournament, played annually for seven years now at the Delhi Golf Club. As well as programmes for caddies, like the ones initiated by the historic Royal Calcutta Golf Club and the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata. RCGC, the second oldest golf club in the world, started a training programme for caddies around the turn of the millennium. Caddies are handed out spare balls, second-hand clubs and given basic technical training, enough to add the natural ability some of them possess anyway. Tolly Club does the same.

But isn’t that too little? And too unfocussed? Isn’t that mainly to try and be inclusive and not much more? Not to say that’s not a good thing, it is. It’s very noble. But is there a solid objective anywhere?

After Muniyappa won, a delighted Asian Tour chairman Kyi Hla Han predicted: “Muniyappa's triumph will inspire more rags-to-riches stories. Young and underprivileged Indian golfers will practice harder. He has shown that the way to success is through hard work and dedication.”

Can’t argue with that. But why not put words in Mr Han’s mouth and frame the statement this way: “Muniyappa's triumph is proof that caddy-turned-golfers can make the cut. But for that, the PGTI must put in place programmes for caddies that will help them reach the top level.”

To end, here we have a natural talent pool waiting to be tapped. If the golf clubs scattered across the country stretch their resources a wee bit, and the PGTI takes a little more interest, a rupee an hour needn’t be the only reward a caddy gets.