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Going greens: India's golf boom

Half a billion Indians live in poverty. The other half lives to golf.

India's Digvijay Singh plays a bunker shot on the 13th hole during the third round of the Indian Masters European Tour golf tournament in New Delhi, Feb. 9, 2008. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — Germany's Marcel Siem took advantage of a last-minute putting tutorial from India's top-ranked women's amateur to take the lead on opening day of the country's newest international golf tournament this week. Tipped to slow greens that foxed other European players, Siem notched an eagle and several birdies by stiffening his stroke to avoid leaving his putts short. But fans still hold out hope for local favorite Jeev Milkha Singh, ranked 59th in the world.

Underway this week at the Indian capital's new DLF Golf & Country Club — a plush course built by one of the country's largest real estate developers — the Avantha Masters is the highest paying professional tournament ever played in India, offering prize money of $2 million.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Known internationally for its slums, India is going green. Putting green. Aided by corporate support and a rising middle class, golf is fast becoming big business in India. Over the past five years, new courses have mushroomed all over the country, and golf-related retailers and manufacturers are beginning to set up shop here to exploit a potentially vast future market.

Meanwhile, the number of amateur tournaments and the prize money for winning has increased manifold, while a number of professional events are also springing up — 24 pro tournaments alone in 2010. And golf tourism is emerging as a lucrative travel business, as players from Japan and Southeast Asia fly in on charter weekends to take advantage of India's bargain basement greens fees.

“We are just short of 200 courses, and we expect that we will put up in the next decade more than 100 courses,” said Ashit Luthra, chairman of the Indian Golf Union. “It is becoming a corporate sport.”

India's skyrocketing residential real estate market has played a big part in the boom. Designed by Arnold Palmer, whose name has become synonymous with beautiful courses, the DLF Golf & Country Club opened for play in 1999, at the beginning of a decade-long burst of activity in the Indian golf scene. Located in Gurgaon, Haryana, a satellite city close to New Delhi that plays host to a large number of multinationals, the golf club was built to attract wealthy Delhi residents to the city's hinterland.

Now virtually every major real estate developer in India is turning to golf as a way of marketing their properties to an elite that once valued an address in the urban center above all. Jaypee Greens, for instance, focused its recently completed 452-acre development in Greater Noida — the latest of Delhi's increasingly far-flung suburbs — on an 18-hole course designed by Canada's Graham Cooke. For an encore, the company is building a top-end residential project around a 2500-acre “sports city” that will feature golf courses as well as a motor-racing track and other facilities. According to the company, golf helps it attract elite customers and sell its properties for more than double the price of neighboring residential projects.

“Golf is actually a major driver for our business,” said Manu Goswami, head of business development at real estate developer Jaypee Greens. “It's pretty amazing the number of people who are getting into it.”

Retailers are also beginning to see India's potential. This January, Callaway Golf, the billion dollar company known for creating the “Big Bertha” driver, launched a wholly owned subsidiary to tap the local Indian market and penned a marketing deal with Jeev Mikkha Singh, the top-ranked Indian player in the world. The launch follows the entry of TaylorMade Golf, a division of adidas, in 2003.