Golf poses for high growth as a pastime across India

Strange as it may sound, the Covid pandemic actually ended up playing a positive role in spreading golf as a pastime across India. For all its history – the first golf course outside of the United Kingdom was the Royal Calcutta Golf Club established in 1829 – the sport for decades was cloistered behind the high walls of club memberships and the attendant exclusivity, costly gear, and limited facilities including driving ranges, golf equipment and the like.

That changed from 2019 when India had just 200,000 players registered with the Indian Golf Union. With 230-odd functioning courses across the length and breadth of the country and golf tourism slowly creeping into the consciousness of those who matter, there is much greater focus and a real effort to make the game more accessible. This push, coinciding with the growth in new faces taking up the game in the last two years or so has seen numbers grow exponentially.

Today, courses are struggling to cope with the rush of walk-in (pay-and-play) golfers, and demands for new memberships. Almost every club has seen numbers spike and a good indicator of this is the rush for new enrollments across the country. Currently, India’s limited number of registered golf clubs are struggling to cope with the demand. A good example is the Hyderabad Golf Association which charges close to Rs 60 lakh for a full membership, and has a waiting list. The story is much the same in every center that has an established golf history like Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh, and Lucknow. Most recently, this list has seen a new entrant with almost no golf pedigree or past in Ahmedabad, now home to one of India’s finest golf courses.

In a recent study, the Golf Industry Association (GIA), an umbrella organization of services related to the golf economy and infrastructure, noted that it expects revenues around the game currently in the region of Rs 75 crore to grow by anything between 20 and 25 percent year on year in the immediate future. “The inclination towards this sport has increased with growing corporatisation and the construction of private golf courses in places like Gurgaon and Greater Noida (in the National Capital Region), which is permitted as part of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) development,” the report noted. “(This has been boosted by) increasing exposure towards the sport through travel and media, the aspirational value attached to the sport, increasing disposable income and a general shift in the lifestyle of Indians.

“The wide acceptance and increasing popularity has given birth to a whole new golf economy and industry. The golf economy can be divided into several interrelated subsectors. The golf industry cluster consists of golf facilities and with other core and non-core industries that produce goods and services used to operate these facilities and to play the game – golf equipment and golf apparel manufacturers, golf course architects, and club management services.

“Golf further enables a number of other industries, the key ones being golf-related tourism and real estate development, both of which are closely intertwined. At present, the domestic demand is met by imports primarily because of a limited demand making it unviable for looking at large scale manufacturing of golf equipment in India. However, despite the challenges there lies a tremendous opportunity for the golf economy.”

Former professional and well-established coach Monish Bindra told this writer a few months ago about how he had seen the number of new players approaching him for classes balloon. “Covid in fact has helped grow my students significantly. I now have almost four times the number of leisure and part-time golfers come to me, both for direct as well as online classes.”

The reason, Bindra felt, was the appeal of the game’s open nature, particularly after the pandemic and its associated restrictions. “This is the only game one can play alone, out in the open and without fear, with reasonable precautions, of not getting infected or coming in too close contact with others. That has created a shift in perceptions about the game. Plus, people now have more money to spend on leisure and many are doing so on golf, which is also a family sport for those so inclined.”

That was probably the start of the new golf revolution. Growing disposable incomes and greater exposure from travel, inspiration from the achievements of professionals like Aditi Ashok at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and Anirban Lahiri who in the space of six months this year picked up two-million dollar pay-cheques have also played a role and the number of juniors participating in club and regional tournaments is booming, always a significant indicator of wider interest.

Adds past GIA president and now patron, Brandon De Souza, himself one of India’s pioneering golf entrepreneurs, “We are poised to grow greatly. Both as an industry and as a pastime, golf is offering more and more to those who want to get into it. As an industry, we need to step up. The government has recognized golf’s potential, which is always a huge bonus. Khelo India is a good step and an indication that the government sees the potential of sport as a nation-builder.”