Golf’s historic return to the Olympics has so far been farcical and slighted by high-profile dropouts. But an Indian caddy-turned-golfer is doing his bit to usher in hope and romance. SHAMIK CHAKRABARTY traces the rise of SSP Chawrasia, the man who began life in the servant’s quarters of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club before turning into India’s medal hopes at Rio.
OFTEN DURING his routine visits to the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), SSP Chawrasia makes a quick stopover at the caddies shed. He’s not welcomed with any unbridled awe or overt excitement here though. The caddies present do take notice of course, and gather around him after an exchange of warm hugs and handshakes. But it’s done without much fuss. Chawrasia too saunters around like he belongs here, still. For them—SSP stands for Shiv Shankar Prasad—he’s their Chipputtsia, a golf-themed moniker which is based on his style of play which is hugely reliant on ‘chipping and putting’. That he is India’s No.2 golfer and one of three set to represent the country in the Olympics for the first-time ever doesn’t seem to have much of a bearing on their disposition towards him. As far as Chawrasia goes, mingling with the caddies in their shed is a literal trip down memory lane.
He knows the life in this secluded corner of a golf course all too well. It is from these outer reaches after all that he commenced a remarkable journey towards a pro-golfing career, starting off by earning Rs 40 per round for lugging around the heavy artillery of other more privileged golfers during their weekend escapades on the greens.
It’s a rather unique suburb is Tollygunge. In a way it’s both the birthplace and the sanctuary of golf in India. Just 500 yards apart stand two of the most iconic institutions in Indian golf history, the RCGC having been founded in 1829, the oldest of its kind outside the British Isles. Just a brisk walk away is Tollygunge or Tolly Club, which came into being some 70 years later but still during the heady heights of the Raj.
RCGC was also home to Chawrasia for many years while growing up, with his big family—seven siblings and parents—put up in the club’s servant quarters. These days, the 38-year-old, who became only the second-ever caddy-turned-golfer to be given RCGC membership after Feroze Ali, owns two flats at Golf Green, where his parents stay, and also one further east in Kalikapur, which houses him and his wife Simanthini. There’s a reason the modern-day caddies at RCGC don’t just look up to him. For, since taking a punt on turning pro back in 1997, Chawrasia has played a huge role in changing the image of golf in this country.
Golf has always been an outlier in the Indian sports scene, and one that has been looked at scornfully by most as a decadent pastime for the elite, the rich and the famous. “Golf is where they dress up well and drive around in those fancy carts. A lazy sport, if you can even call it a sport,” is the most common lament that golf has had to contend with in this country. And it’s not surprising that even now many don’t see golf really sitting convincingly or deservedly on the same table as the other Olympic sports, maybe because of the apparent lack of blood, sweat and brazen passion, three crucial elements you are not expected to witness on the greens.
But Chawrasia is aware that an Olympic medal will change all that. He knows that in Rio, Anirban Lahiri, Aditi Ashok and he himself have an opportunity to redefine the future of golf in India, to bring it into vogue like never before and to kill all the prevailing prejudices for good.
The return of golf on the Olympics scene after a 112-year gap though hasn’t quite set the rest of the world on fire. If anything it’s been farcical and had made more news for the high-profile dropouts. With the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson pulling out of the men’s event, the Kolkata man might even have a chance, with his compatriot Lahiri probably being among his tougher opponents. “We, the golfers, always had the void. Every four years we used to lament golf’s non-inclusion at the quadrennial showpiece. So it’s a dream come true. To a professional golfer the Green Jacket is perhaps the ultimate prize. But I always wanted to be part of Olympics and a gold medal at Rio will supersede everything,” Chawrasia says.
To his credit, he’s earned his grade too. He is the reigning Indian Open champion. He has won four international titles, including three on the European Tour. His world ranking is 207, but Chawrasia stood at 45th in the International Golf Federation’s (IGF) charts on July 11, which was the cut-off date for Olympic qualification. That got him into the elite field of 60 players. Lahiri, ranked 62nd in the world and 20th in the IGF list, was an automatic pick. Chawrasia, however, has had a knack of not letting rankings get in his way, his 2008 Indian Masters triumph confirming his big-event temperament.
Not getting to rub shoulders with golf’s elite at the biggest sporting showpiece on the planet doesn’t sit well with him though. “Zika virus or whatever, I think top players should have been there at Rio. Golf has returned to Olympics after over 100 years and their absence would send a negative message. It would still be a very tough contest though,” he says.
Chawrasia’s grandfather was a ‘paanwala’ at Banaras. His father Ganesh Prasad decided to ditch the family business and migrate to Kolkata. That was about six decades ago. He came to RCGC and started working as a greens-keeper. The club was kind enough to provide him an accommodation, but a paltry income and the modest quarters for his ever-growing family – five sons (one of them died very young) and three daughters – presented a grim picture of poverty. Working as a caddie was an additional source of income and Chawrasia’s elder brother Vijay Prasad was the first to take that route, soon after reaching his teens. He later played golf as an amateur. SSP followed in his footsteps.
“It was a struggle. But I always wanted to become a professional golfer. I used to train till evening, after finishing the caddie’s job. I wanted to go straight into the professional circuit because it offered money. My father tried to put things in perspective, saying we just couldn’t afford the luxury. But I was determined and in 1997, I decided to enter professional golf. My mother, Shiv Kumari, was supportive,” he says.
At 19, Chawrasia became a member of the Indian PGA and went to Patna for his first pro tournament. He didn’t have a golf set. One of his friends borrowed it from someone. He did make the cut though, finishing 37th. He earned Rs 4,387 from this adventure. It was his first income as a player.
“It offered the leeway to take my passion a little further. The RCGC extended help. Neil Law, a member of the club, gave me my first golf kit,” Chawrasia recalls.
From there, he went to Chennai and Bangalore next year but missed the cut. Chandigarh was next. And he was to receive an ultimatum from his father before he left. The youngster had to earn something from the event or kiss his golfing career goodbye. As it turned out, Chawrasia didn’t make the cut. But his mother was at hand to save the day. She broke her savings to send him to Kapurthala, where he finally made it. He then returned to Chandigarh for another event and made the cut this time.
“Then came Delhi and the biggest tournament on the Indian tour. I stayed at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium; I just couldn’t afford to put up at a hotel. My whole career hinged on that event, which had a total prize money of Rs 28 lakh. I finished 22nd, got something around Rs 30,000 and never looked back. It was the turning point of my life,” Chawrasia reminisces.
Within two years, Chawrasia was in a position to move out of the servants’ quarters at RCGC and purchase his own 2BHK flat at Golf Green. It is around this time that he met Simanthini. Nine years later, they tied the knot. “She wasn’t fond of golf but always accompanied me on tours. After I qualified for Olympics, she has suddenly started to take an interest in the sport,” he says with a smile.
A 10-minute walk from the RCGC through Golf Club Road takes you to a slum that has enriched Indian golf with some special talents. Mother Talla got its name from a local mazar (shrine) that had housed a former cleric called Mother Baba. An array of tiled-roof huts attests privation. An overflowing garbage bin raises a stink. Narrow by-lanes look like they’ve never got a coat of asphalt. You might assume this area doesn’t feature in the list of Kolkata Corporation or the Public Works Department. Danny Boyle might be interested to do a recce if he plans a Slumdog Millionaire sequel.
But it’s in these desolate climes that Sheikh Jamshed Ali, the first Arjuna Awardee in golf and also the first Indian on the US PGA Tour, grew up. He was a caddie-turned-pro, who overcame huge odds to create a legacy. Yusuf Ali, Asghar Ali, Akbar Ali, Rizwan Ali, Basat Ali, Feroze Ali, Chini Ali, Rafiq Ali, Mohammad Selim, Mohammad Khokon and Mohammad Sanju then followed suit. Basat went on to become India No. 1. Feroze won the Indian Open and Asian Tour Championships. But the connection between Mother Talla and golf go back a long way, to the days of the Raj.
“The sahibs used to take our forefathers to the RCGC to carry their golf equipment. Catering to their needs was the main source of income for the people here. Gradually they developed a love for the sport and started to learn it by watching their masters. We are all self-made golfers. We watched the professionals and club members play, learned the rules, caddied them and practised after our work was over,” Rafiq Ali explains.
Mother Talla no longer churns out readymade talents though. Raju Ali, Mohammad Sanju and Shankar Das provide a tenuous link to its glorious past. In the west, the period between the mid-70s to the mid-90s saw a massive decrease in the number of caddies and subsequently fewer golfers emerging from the minorities, the singular reason for that being the emergence of the golf-cart. It’s different in these parts.
“The young generation now has many opportunities outside golf. Working as a caddie isn’t rewarding. An ‘A’ category caddie now gets Rs 450 per round for 18 holes and Rs 225 per round for nine holes at the RCGC. Becoming pro requires a certain amount of courage. Yes, the caddies can play (in the quiet hours) by paying the club only Rs 12 per day. But the (professional) field has become a lot more competitive and not many people from our background can afford to take the risk,” Sanju says. Though Chawrasia has never lived at Mother Talla, his story is just another, if not the most significant chapter, in this cultural revolution that has transformed the image of golf in India.
Chawrasia’s passion for golf goes well beyond the greens though. It’s an obsession for him, one that kind of blanks every other distraction.
“No, I don’t follow any other sport. I seldom watch a movie. When I’m not playing, I’m thinking about golf. On tours, I spend time with Jeev Milkha Singh after the day’s play. He is my best friend, someone who has helped me a lot right from the early days of my career. We discuss golf. I try to learn from him and get better,” he says.
He recently also had a conversation with the new British Open champion Henrik Stenson. And then, there’s Sandeep Verma from Delhi, who he depends on for ‘online’ coaching. “Look, I’m a self-made golfer. But the circuit is extremely tough and you need a personal coach to prepare well. Earlier, I couldn’t afford one and now it has become a habit; being on the Tour without a coach. But you need additional inputs for big tournaments and I’m constantly in touch with Verma ahead of the Olympics. I’m sending him videos of my training sessions,” he says.
At Rio, he will spend most of his time with Lahiri, both talking golf and competing against him. But before that Chawrasia will be in Pattaya, Thailand for the Kings’ Cup from July 28 to 31. It will be a sort of final warm-up event before the Olympics. Having little experience of playing in South America could be a problem. But considering it’s the Olympics, Chawrasia expects it to be smooth sailing. “For a tournament like Olympics, they will design the course as per the international guidelines,” he says.
Chawrasia isn’t someone who looks too far ahead or sets elaborate goals on the greens. But the self-confessed Tiger Woods fanatic, does intend to spread his beloved sport to the masses much like his idol.
“Tiger Woods took golf to the middle-class living rooms. I want to set up the SSP Chawrasia foundation to take golf to the lower middle-class in India. We need to woo common people to golf,” he says.
Maybe he’s just too modest to admit it. But Chawrasia has already well on his way to achieving his ultimate goal. For, golf is thriving in India presently, and it no longer carries the classist stigma of old.
And the affable Chawrasia can take a lot of credit for it already. An Olympic medal will just take it a few notches higher, and make his next visit to the RCGC caddies’ shed a lot more special.