Shubhankar Sharma has been the most successful Indian golfer in the past year.(AFP)
Shubhankar Sharma has been the most successful Indian golfer in the past year.(AFP)

Rags to riches: How golf bridged the wide gap for SSP Chawrasia, Shubhankar Sharma

Indian golfers like SSP Chawrasia, Shubhankar Sharma and Anirban Lahiri are proof that young amateurs from middle-class backgrounds are now taking up the expensive sport of golf.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Robin Bose
UPDATED ON MAR 30, 2018 04:52 PM IST

They trained with wooden clubs or on overgrown grass, and wore school shoes with holes drilled for fixing spikes. Their fathers doubled up as self-taught coaches and caddies, learning the skills from manuals, journals and hours of videos. The middle-class families dipped into savings to let their sons live the great Indian golfing dream.

The odds of failure were as high as hitting a double bogey in a neck-and-neck contest. But the young amateurs from working-class and middle-class backgrounds — driven by talent and passion — toiled hard and succeeded in the expensive sport of golf, once the sole reserve and pastime of the upper crust.

The latest ace to emerge from the rough is Shubhankar Sharma, the 21-year-old son of a retired military officer who spent most of his retirement benefits on his son’s golfing needs — equipment, training fee and travel expenses — before he turned professional.

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Shubhankar will be teeing off at The Masters on April 5, and the aim is to make a mark at the year’s first Major and secure playing rights on the PGA Tour. The world No 68 owes his career and success to his parents and their sacrifices.

“Every penny has gone into our passion (of seeing Shubhankar play at the highest level). It was far from easy, but we had faith in our values, god and the boy that he would make it one day,” said Colonel Mohan Sharma.

The colonel took voluntary retirement in 2012 after 25 years in the army to push his son’s career in golf. His savings were less than 1 lakh and the family stays in a rented house in Panchkula.

Several corners were cut and lifestyle adjustments made to route resources and energy into Shubhankar’s training. From regular schooling, he switched to open learning as it allowed him more time for golf and saved money as well.

Before him, the new face of Indian golf was Anirban Lahiri — the son of a military doctor and recreational golfer. Anirban grew up playing on army golf courses that had two inches of grass, imperfect for the sport. He had to make-do with a second-hand set of clubs for women and wore improvised golf shoes as new ones were beyond reach.

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Tushar Lahiri drilled holes in his son’s school shoes to fix spikes. And in the absence of formal guidance, the father and son spent hours reading books and watching videos on golf. His talent and toil paid off. The 30-year-old Anirban has 18 professional wins, broke into the top 100 in the official world golf ranking in 2014, and is a regular on the PGA Tour now — the elite circuit Shubhankar aspires to join.

Life wasn’t easy off the golf course and on it for Shiv Shankar Prasad Chawrasia, or SSP as he is endearingly called, when he started out as a kid at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC). He had to practise hiding from club members, who disapproved of a greenkeeper’s son playing on the fairways. There were times when he was shooed away.

His mother, though supportive, made it clear that he was on his own when he decided at age 14 to make golf his career. There were too many mouths to feed, she reasoned.

“I decided to wait and in the meantime practised my heart out as there was no point taking the plunge (turning professional) and missing the cut,” said SSP, nicknamed Chipputtsia for his short game.

He finally made the cut in the 1997 season-ender. A 37th spot finish and a cheque of 3,740 — his first as a professional — remain special. Success on European and Asian tours has brought glory and riches, and the pro owns a sprawling house near the RCGC now. Gone are the days when a victory was essential to fund the next tournament.

The government recognised his feats with an Arjuna Award in 2017. At 39, he is taking steps to give back to the sport that defines him. He is funding a foundation to spot talents from the underprivileged sections of society and nurture them. Similar acts of benevolence allowed Shamim Khan become a successful professional golfer — the all-time highest earner in the Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI), the country’s pro golf tour. He cut his tees at the Delhi Golf Club (DGC), the favourite watering hole of the Capital’s well-heeled, where his father used to work.

The family lives at Nizamuddin, a shout away from the club, and he followed his father to his workplace where the manicured greens captured his imagination. But like SSP, Shamim’s presence at the greens was frowned upon by some members and he was suspended several times for trespassing.

Intervention from supportive members saved his day, though the struggle off the golf course remained as his father’s meagre income was barely enough to feed the family, let alone fund his big dream in a rich man’s sport. He played with wooden clubs, and didn’t have money even to pay the entry fee of 200 for the qualifying school of the domestic pro tour in 1997.

“As a player, I could work hard and persevere, nothing else,” said Shamim, who hasn’t forgotten the help from patrons such as Pankaj Munjal and Ranjit Singh Talwar in his formative years.

He was in his early teens when Ali Sher became the first Indian professional to win the Indian Open in 1991 and repeat the feat in 1993. Ali’s achievement spurred a young Shamim, and many more like him, to believe that homegrown talent could compete successfully on the big stage.

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Ali, too, had little else to fall back on but talent when he began. Money tiptoed in with success, as did perks such as an honorary membership at the DGC. But it is affection that means more to him than money.

“Paisa toh ghoomti Lakshmi hai (money comes and goes),” Ali said. The 58-year-old points to “inner joy” as he spends a considerable portion of his wealth on charity.

Seated at his favourite spot in the club’s bar, he said: “A senior member used to sit here but since he comes rarely, this is my spot.”

The conversation drifts to his meteoric rise. “But for golf, I couldn’t have imagined sharing the choicest of liquor with people I once used to be in awe of,” he remarked, raising a toast.

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