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Even Golf Is Booming In Bangalore

May 28, 2007
May 28, 2007

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May 28, 2007

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Even Golf Is Booming In Bangalore

Having started from scratch, the game is catching on among the upwardly mobile citizens of the city that's synonymous with India's economic ascendancy

Toni Oberoi, avivacious 56-year-old Sikh, is a 10 handicapper at Delhi Golf Club, a demanding6,882-yard par-72 layout full of ancient Mughal tombs and massive porcupines.In 1990 Oberoi retired from the Indian Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel,and for the last few years he has pursued a second career that his friendsthink is bizarre: Oberoi is a golf course developer and architect. ¶ I metOberoi over a dinner of lamb stew, chemeen thoren (stir-fried prawns withcoconut, mustard and tamarind) and curried vegetables at the Spice Routerestaurant in New Delhi. "Golf here has gone mad," said Oberoi. "Wehave a pro circuit. We have golf magazines and TV shows. Everybody is gettinginto golf."

This is an article from the May 28, 2007 issue

"Everybody?" I asked. "You have more than a billionpeople."

"Maybe Iexaggerate," said Oberoi, "but in the last 20 years we've gone from20,000 golfers to more than 100,000, while the number of courses has only risenfrom 150 to 200, so there's room to capitalize."

Golf has a longhistory in India. The British introduced the game to the subcontinent in theearly 1800s and built dozens of courses, including the four oldest outside theBritish Isles. (Royal Calcutta, which opened in 1829, is the most venerable.)But the cricket-mad Indians rarely played golf under British rule, so the gamevirtually disappeared after India gained independence in 1947. Golf's recentrenaissance has dovetailed with India's staggering economic growth. Whileseveral hundred million Indians still live in poverty, there are 10 millionpeople in the upper class and 300 million in the middle class, and in thesecircles golf is gaining a foothold.

"Where's thebest place to see the golf boom?" I asked.

"There's noplace like Bangalore," said Oberoi.

It's 6:30 a.m. atEagleton, India's only golf resort, and the tranquility of the dew-sweptgrounds is a stark contrast to the chaos I witnessed seven hours earlier, whenmy flight touched down at Bangalore International, perhaps the most dilapidatedand jam-packed major airport in the country. During a whirligig taxi ridethrough the overcrowded city, as we swirled around rickshaws, bicycles,squatters, cows, goats, dogs, cats and chickens, my driver told me that thelure of jobs has doubled the population of Bangalore, to 6.5 million, in thelast two decades. But, he said, the city's infrastructure hasn't kept pace.

Considering mysleep deprivation and culture shock, I have a good excuse for lipping out athree-foot par putt on Eagleton's 1st hole, a par-5, but my three Indianplaying partners show me no mercy.

"You gotBangalored!" says Nandkumar Dhekne, a regional director of GE Energy inIndia.

"What'sthat?" I ask.

"In America itmeans you lost your job because it was outsourced to India," says Dhekne."When golfing here, it means you got a bad break."

Dhekne is atypical Indian golfer. Now 50, he's well-educated (he received a degree inchemical engineering from the University of Bombay), a good cricketer (he wasthe star of his college team) and has worked in the U.S. While munching on afried-egg sandwich at the snack bar near the 7th green, Dhekne tells me why hetook up golf six years ago: "Because my joints were too creaky for cricket,and golf is pretty good for business."

Eagleton is anattractive new world for upwardly mobile Indians. The $10 million resort sitson 460 acres, has a 108-room hotel and boasts a Peter Thomson-- designedcourse, a hilly 6,632-yard par-72 with the largest and slickest greens inIndia. Eagleton also has some of the city's hottest real estate--the price of aquarter-acre lot has risen 1,000%, to $325,000, over the last five years. Sincethe club opened in 2000, more than 1,500 people have paid the $7,500 lifetimemembership fee. "It's the only place where you can pay and play today,"says Dhekne. Bangalore has only five other courses. Three are owned by themilitary, and the other two, KGA and Bangalore Golf Club, have decades-longwaiting lists.

After topping hisdrive at 14, a 364-yard par-4, Dhekne, a 20 handicapper, holds up his driverand points it at the sky. "This thing stinks!" he says.

"What isit?" I ask.

"A knockoff ofthe TaylorMade R5. I got it for $30 in Shanghai," Dhekne says.

On the 18th tee heasks me to try his driver. I rip one down the middle. "Want to buy it?"asks Dhekne. "Twenty bucks."

"Nothanks," I reply. "In America we have a phrase for golfers like you. Wesay, 'It's not the arrow; it's the Indian.'"

Bangalore was asoporific outpost in the early 1980s. There were two hotels, no office parksand so much green space that it was called the Garden City. In 1985 TexasInstruments opened a research facility in the city and thus became the firstmultinational company in modern India. Today Bangalore is a concrete jungle atthe nexus of the global economy and home to India's richest man (Azim Premji,founder of the software company Wipro) and woman (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founderof the pharmaceutical giant Biocon).

AnotherBangalorean hoping to strike gold is Amit Saran. But Saran, 51, is into golf."Golf is a real business model that's only going up," Saran tells mewhile sipping a double espresso at an outdoor café in town. "Look at allthe yuppies around us. They have disposable income. My job is to persuade themto spend it on golf."

With an MBA fromAllahabad University, Saran spent 21 years as an executive at a zipper companybefore starting SPT Sports, a marketing firm focused on golf, in 1998. Hisfirst project was to design a three-hole pitch-and-putt course on the Infosyscorporate campus in Bangalore.

"Are you anarchitect?" I ask.

"No,"Saran says, "but I never say no to a good offer."

Today Saranorganizes corporate golf outings and owns a driving range, one of only five inIndia. The range, which opened in 2004, is on seven acres on the outskirts ofBangalore. "Everybody, even my wife, thinks I'm crazy," says Saran,"but my passion is golf. I know I can make it."

I don't need toask where to aim on the 1st tee at the KGA (Karnataka Golf Association) GolfCourse in downtown Bangalore. Only a blind man couldn't see the huge neon IBMsign atop the glass office building behind the 1st green. Nor do I have to askwhere not to aim. There's a neon Microsoft sign atop the glass building to theright of the green, and a shot hit in that direction is OB.

"The historyof KGA epitomizes the transformation of Bangalore," says KrishnakumarNatarajan, the CEO of Mindtree, a software consulting company, as we strolldown the 1st fairway.

Also designed byThomson, the five-time British Open champ from Australia, KGA is a flat6,786-yard par-72 layout on what used to be guava and coconut fields owned bythe city. In the mid-1980s some golfers cajoled city fathers to lease them theland for a rupee (a little more than two cents) per acre a year. "Soundslike an anti--Robin Hood story," I say.

Natarajan, a 22handicapper who took up golf three years ago, smiles. "Things like thathappen a lot in India," he says.

The gleamingfive-million-square-foot office park to the right of KGA's first five holes ison terrain that also used to be farmland. It was owned by an indigent mute whocollected errant golf balls and sold them to players through a chain-linkfence. "That man is rich now," says Natarajan. "A developer paidhim $2 million in the late 1990s."

Hearing suchstories is more than half the fun of playing golf in India. On the 4th tee Iask my partners about the towering floodlights on the course. "Some guyshere want night golf, so suddenly these lights appeared," says Ramesh Rao,a high-tech headhunter playing with us. "The project cost half a millionbucks."

"How did theclub pay for that?" I wonder.

"We offered 15corporate memberships at $50,000 each," says Rao. "They sold outimmediately."

"How often doyou use the lights?"

"Never,"says Rao.

"Whynot?"

"The airportauthority hasn't given permission," Rao says. "They think it's unsafebecause we're right next to the airport. But a lot of the pilots are golfers,so we're working out that issue."

I thought i hadseen the world's most hellacious road while driving into Bangalore from theairport. Then Kanishka Saran drives me and his father, Amit, to Amit's drivingrange. The last five miles are two lanes of mud littered with boulders, trees,garbage and potholes. "Forgive the appearance," says Kanishka. "Wejust had our wettest month ever--more than 20 inches of rain."

Kanishka, anenergetic and soft-spoken 26-year-old, is one of only two golf equipment salesreps in India. Kanishka, who got an M.B.A. from the prestigious InternationalManagement Institute in Delhi, and the other rep work for TaylorMade. Kanishkaand his partner, who are based in New Delhi, had $900,000 in sales in theirfirst year, 2004. They grossed $2 million in '05 and more than $3 million lastyear. "The growth potential is a salesman's dream," says Kanishka.

In contrast,Amit's range business is struggling. His range has 22 bays covered by athatched roof and a lush grass landing area, but so far only 180 golfers havepaid the $115 annual fee for an unlimited number of balls. "Does golfreally have a future in India?" I ask Amit.

"There itis," he says, pointing toward his son, who's talking to two potbellied mena few bays away. The men are hitting balls with rusty old clubs, but Kanishkaquickly persuades them to try new TaylorMade irons. Suddenly, Kanishka hurriesto his car and returns with his briefcase. Each man buys a $600 set ofirons.

"There ishope," says Amit.

Bangalore's LeelaPalace is a $500-a-night, 256-room hotel fit for a maharaja. I visit for Sundaybrunch with some bankers from Goldman Sachs, who also play a lot of golf.

"A friend andI were paired with this 80-year-old guy at KGA, and he was barking allday," says Chris Oberoi, 30, a vice president at Goldman Sachs. "Hethought my friend and I were too loud and didn't know the properetiquette."

As we fill ourplates with lamb kebabs, coconut almond fried fish and fennel-scented crabsalad, Oberoi fills me in on his plans for the Goldman Sachs office inBangalore. Named Crystal Downs after the legendary course in Frankfort, Mich.,the building is in the Embassy Golf Club Business Park, adjacent to the 2nd and3rd holes at KGA. "I want to build a putting green on our 1,000-square-footroof terrace," says Oberoi.

Back at the tableRitesh Gadhiya, a 33-year-old tech executive at Goldman Sachs who spent eightyears in the U.S., describes his passion for the game. "Indians areaddictive, which is why we love golf," he says. "I was mesmerized thefirst time I hit a shot--at a pitch-and-putt in New Jersey. I was hooked rightaway, so I went home and subscribed to Golf Channel. Now I hit plastic ballsaround our house, and I'm teaching my daughter."

"How old isshe?" I ask.

"One and ahalf," Gadhiya says.

• Joe Passov (a.k.a. Travelin' Joe) unearths golf's hidden gems atGOLF.com.

"You got Bangalored!" Dhenke says when I miss aputt. "In America it means you lost your job. HERE IT MEANS A BADBREAK."
To pay for the lights at KGA, "we offered 15memberships at $50,000 each," says Rao. "THEY SOLD OUTIMMEDIATELY."
TWO PHOTOSRICK LIPSEY STATUSSYMBOLS
Eagleton looks like a Myrtle Beach club, while Karan Singh (right) looks like aplayer.
FOUR PHOTOSRICK LIPSEY KEEP THEFAITH
Hindu deities Buddha (left) and Aditya (right) are as common as heady caddiesand female course workers.
FOUR PHOTOSRICK LIPSEY GAPWEDGE
The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, and the old and the new, are constantsin Indian golf and life.