COMES OF AGE

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 Indi

The Sunday Guardian - - THE WEEK -

‘Ihave 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.

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.

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 eightyear-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.

“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.”

“Ju­nior golf has been on the rise in India for more than 15 years now. 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.”

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

Kar­tik Singh with his coach Raju James Joseph.

Ar­jun Bhati.

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