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Going greens: India's golf boom

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

"Callaway Golf's international business spans more than 110 countries and accounts for over half of the Company's annual revenue," George Fellows, Callaway's chief executive, was quoted as saying in a press release. "We see great potential in the Indian market and are looking forward to introducing our products.”

It's been a long road. India's Royal Calcutta Golf Club was the first such club outside Great Britain when it was built, in 1829, five years before the construction of Scotland's St. Andrews and 60 years before the game made its way to America. But even though the sport continued among India's elite throughout the 20th century, its strong associations with capitalism and colonialism prevented golf from breaking out of the competitive sports arena to become a top leisure activity. Until now.

“India is not active enough in the 30-plus age group to get into racket ball or tennis, so the 30-plus segment is looking for a softer game like golf,” said Jaypee Greens' Goswami.

Though the market is still tiny compared with the U.S., about half a million Indians play golf today, and Callaway forecasts that number will grow at an annual rate of 25 to 30 percent for the next few years, compared with 2 to 3 percent in America.

What's more, as an increasing number of Indian pros break into the big money and sports in general attain greater acceptance among the middle class with the success of athletes like tennis player Sania Mirza, the new players taking up golf are no longer limited to Indians who can trace their wealth to the days of the British Raj. Earlier this year, a former caddie whose father worked as a laborer took home $200,000 by winning the Indian Open. And in Kolkata, Indrajit Bhalotia's Protouch golf academy has teamed up with a school for slum children to teach some of the poorest kids in India the proverbial rich man's game.

One reason is that apart from the posh courses that real estate developers are hiring the world's best designers to build, India is also beginning to witness growth in the cheap, open-access public courses that can democratize the game. Greens fees at most courses run less than $11 and many courses charge as little as $1. But even at the top courses fees are a fraction of the rates charged elsewhere in Asia.

And that makes golf tourism a potentially lucrative proposition for India's travel sector. Thanks to colonial-era courses located in the Himalayan hills and tea estates, and others sprinkled with historical monuments, India boasts some unusual attractions for the golf tourist. The greens of the Agra Golf Club boast a stunning view of the Taj Mahal, the links of Delhi's Qutub Golf Course lie in the shadow of the 12th-century Qutub Minar, and courses across the country promise everything from stunning desert landscapes to lush coffee plantations. Several travel agents are already marketing Indian golf holidays to tourists from Japan and Southeast Asia — who have already made Malaysia and Thailand popular haunts.

“If we market it well, we can get a flood of tourists coming in,” said Luthra. “But for that, we need more and more courses.”