For a few heady hours on Thursday, an Indian professional golfer was leading a major championship. Through 11 holes of the first round of the British Open, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, arguably India’s most successful golfer, was atop the leaderboard at three-under par and looking down at the likes of Ernie Els and Tiger Woods.
It was a surreal sight and one that was destined not to last. Jeev, as he is more popularly known, struggled over the closing holes to finish at even par. The less heralded Anirban Lahiri surprisingly kept India’s flag flying that same afternoon with an opening 68 (2-under) but that would be as good as it got.
That’s not to say the week was without its landmarks. Both players made the cut, the first time two Indians had done that in a major championship. While Jeev faded on the weekend to finish at +10, the 25-year-old Lahiri battled to finish in a tie for 31st at +3 alongside rising US star Ricky Fowler, and Jason Dufner, who has won twice on the US PGA Tour this year.
Their performances raise the question of when we might see an Indian golfer lift one of golf’s most coveted trophies. Unfortunately, the answer is not anytime soon.
The reasons are simple: lack of experience in major championship conditions and a lack of exposure. Adam Scott’s implosion over the final four holes on Sunday shows just how difficult it is to win one of these events even for someone has talented as the 32-year-old Australian. It typically takes years and a few near-misses before a player is ready to break through.
Indian golfers don’t have that luxury because they rarely qualify for major championships. Even Jeev, who topped the Asian Tour Money list in 2006 and has won multiple times in Europe, has only played in a dozen majors over the course of his 19-year professional career. That’s fewest majors than Woods has won. In that time, Jeev has finished inside the top-20 just once, a tie for ninth in the 2008 US PGA Championship, so far India’s only top-10 finish in a major.
Beyond the actual experience of coping with the mental pressure of playing a major, there are also the unfamiliar conditions of the courses in the US and the UK. Indian golf courses have traditionally been much shorter, have rough that is nowhere near as penal and greens that are as slow as pudding compared to their western counterparts. A practice round or two is not enough to adapt to the conditions or learn the shots necessary to extricate oneself from trouble, another significant disadvantage.
Then there are the cultural differences. SSP Chowrasia won the inaugural Indian Masters in 2008, thereby earning his playing privileges on the European Tour, just the third Indian to do so. But instead of the stepping stone it could have been, Chowrasia struggled to cope with the unfamiliar cities, languages and foods.
Even for those familiar with their surroundings, golf can be a lonely sport with its constant travel and anodyne hotel rooms. In Chowrasia’s case, handicapped by language in particular, he was left entirely to his own devices and predictably his form suffered and he lost his tour card after his two-year exemption ended.
If India is to produce a major champion, it has to improve the quality of the courses in the country, a process that has already begun in a small way with several big names designing new courses, including Arnold Palmer and Vijay Singh. More importantly though, players need to be sent to compete in the US and the UK in their teens.
They need to be made aware of the level of competition around the world and they need to be given the opportunity to hone their skills under different conditions. It is only once they are well and truly battle-tested will an Indian ever be introduced as the “Champion Golfer of the year”, as Els was on Sunday.