How SSP Chawrasia's Rio qualification has destroyed Golf's elitist stereotype in India
After a 112 year hiatus away from the Olympic realm, Golf is all set to make a prolific return to action in Rio. The sport in India has always been considered highly inaccessible to the lower and middle classes, due to the inherent cost of participation. Lack of access to driving ranges, expensive equipment and an even higher cost of competing semi-professionally has accentuated its ‘elitist’ stereotype. However, the qualification of Kolkata’s SSP Chowrasia is an anti-thesis to this particular notion.
The 35-year old has practically lived his entire life on the golf greens. Son of the grass-keeper at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), he was first exposed to golf, during one of his father’s daily visits to the course.
From lifting other’s golf kits for extra money to National champion
He grew up with seven siblings in the club’s servant quarters, with the game’s bug biting him at an early age. Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “During those days, it was more of innocence you know, I used to accompany my father to the green every day and saw all the club members play, it was so exciting for me. I loved how much accuracy was required, instead of helping my father in the field, I used to spend more time watching them play. Hence, my father decided that I would start carrying the golf bags, and being honest, I had absolutely no problem with that.”
India’s number 2 Men’s golfer is a stalwart in the Asian and European circuit, lifting seven international titles in the process during a 20-year career. More than his success on the grandest stage, Chowrasia’s journey so far has been path-breaking for a country which is not a traditional powerhouse. He said, “When I used to carry bags of the others, I had no problem with that simply because I got to learn so much from them. I used to see how they would hit their shots, keep in mind the trajectory and just be so focused. Every time one of the members felt tired, I used to immediately raise my hand to play. There wasn’t that much money from caddying, but for me, it was not about the money, it was genuinely to learn.”
This particular passion for the sport is why none of his brothers, who also caddied as youngsters, never transitioned to professional golf.
That being said, Chowrasia always knew that he was dependent on others to play the sport. He didn’t have the equipment or the required gear to participate in such events, hence it became increasingly difficult for him to pursue his passion.
In 1995, he told his parents that he wanted to pursue golf professionally. He added, “My father said and I remember those exact words, ‘Pagal hai kya? Hum tumko babu dikhte hai, jo itna paisa kama ke khelne denge’ (Do I look like a rich man to you, that I will fund your golf career?). My entire family was against it, but I knew that what I really wanted to do. So I just kept playing and playing and playing.”
Had to borrow a kit to play my first tournament, the Rs 22,000 I won was the most I ever saw at one time: Chawrasia
Around that time, Chowrasia started participating in local RCGC and inter-club tournaments. Much to his surprise, his regular trysts with golf against the established club members was paying dividends.
Within no time, ‘Shiv the caddy boy’ became the talk of the club. He would earn money from one tournament and then go onto invest that in another entity. For example, after his first local tournament victory, he took that money as the entry fee for the next. He added, “Obviously, for me I didn’t have any other source of income, so it was based on a revolving system, where I would spend on golf clubs after one tournament then on entry free. In fact, this didn’t change till a couple of years back till I got sponsored.”
The reigning Indian Open champion stood 45th in the International Golf Federation rankings to qualify for Rio. Along with team member Anirban Lahiri, the duo form India’s dark-horse bet at the Olympics. He said, “All of us, Anirban, me and Aditi, we know that a victory for us at Rio, will announce golf as a force to be reckoned with. Till now it’s been restricted to a particular niche, but if we medal it will have the attention of a nation. So we all know the importance of it to the community and definitely are preparing accordingly.”
A 10-year old self-learned prodigy has also been given the nickname “Chip-Putt-sia” for his extraordinary short game. Chawrasia’s first full national season as a pro in 1998, he earned Rs 80,000, an amount unthinkable for him. He said, “I knew I had to travel much more, but when I started giving back money home regularly since 1998, it’s been a confidence booster for me. During that time, I was in serious self doubt, because I always wondered whether such an expensive risk would pay out for me. Even my parents were stable then and understood my passion.”
For his first ever Pro-tournament, he travelled to Patna. Playing for the first time outside his local club, Chawrasia borrowed clubs from a fellow member Neil Law. He added, “I’m really thankful to him, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here today. All his help during those days has got me so far.”
A successful Indian Open with a 22nd placed finish in 1998 finally saw him stabilise financially. He said, “I earned Rs 22,000, my highest from a single event, when I returned my family was ecstatic about it and so was I. And my father also finally started believing in my ability. He was just worried I would just be caddying my entire life.”
The equipment and accessibility conundrum
Community courses in both North America and Europe have given an added impetus to Golf’s grass-root level structure in the west. The initiative also decreases the cost and increases the time spent invested to get better at the game.
A concept which is yet to arrive on Indian shores, hence the cost for club membership is close at least Rs 5 lakhs per annum to garner exposure for regular everyday play. Add to that the equipment expenses – Golf clubs (Rs 2.5 lakhs) and Golf balls (Rs 5,000 per month), it became a massive burden for even an upper middle-class family, let alone someone from the lower economic strata. Hence, Shiv’s ability to replenish his skill and passion with small bits of money and still continuously be successful for three decades is a first for Pro Golf.
1999 would be a domestic breakout year for Chowrasia. A second placed finish at the Indian Open, narrowly behind US PGA Tour stalwart Arjun Atwal raised several eyebrows. Steady top tournament finishes, saw him make the Asian Tour cut in 2006, a qualification seat restricted to only India’s best.
He added, “The sport is growing in India and there are no two ways about it. I mean look at Anirban, do you remember the last time an Indian made the world top 30 or 35, I don’t. So I strongly believe that has been a constant. But, I do feel that it also has to do a lot with the individual’s willingness to perform at the top level. The government has to bring subsidy into golf as there is a lot of good talent, who could rise to the top. Inherently, Indians are better at technique based sports, this is no different.”
The Indian Masters victory
A successful Asian Tour outing with a top 10 at the Bangkok Open saw him earn $36,257, his highest ever. In one season, he also went from being ranked 153rd to 38th in the Asian Tour. Further improving his ranking in 2007 to 38, however, Chowrasia’s biggest win came in 2008.
With established US PGA tour players such as Ernie Els, Thomas Bjorn and Maarten Lafeber coming down to Delhi for the Indian Masters, it was always going to be a daunting task for any domestic stalwart. However, ‘Shiv the caddy’ held his nerve to lift the title against a star-studded line-up. His prize money earnings immediately doubled with a 100 place climb to the world top 250. A surreal feeling for the Banarasi, he said, “That is still the best moment of my life, I couldn’t believe I beat Ernie Els, that gave me so much confidence in my ability.”
He also became only the third Indian after Arjun Atwal and Jeev Milkha Singh to win a European PGA Tour event. By 2010, Chawrasia was top of the Asian leaderboard and ranked 161st in the world. He picked up yet another major scalp in 2011, by defeating Englishman Robert Polesto to win the Avantha Masters title.
He added, “When I began I always had this insecurity complex within me you know that the other guys, they all have financial backing. If not golf, it’s nothing for me, for the others they can fall back to something. And it probably made me think negative a lot of times as well, but over time I internalised the fact that golf is my life and it should be my only thing. So I stopped thinking about those things and made the choice to believe in me. That particular day changed my life.”
With Hockey and Shooting, heading to Rio as India’s best bet for an Olympic medal, Golf has everything to gain. If SSP Chowrasia does end up medalling, it will be a story that befit’s the country's Golfing landscape perfectly.