Eagleton looks like a Myrtle Beach Club.
Rick Lipsey
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Toni Oberoi, a vivacious 56-year-old Sikh, is a 10 handicapper at Delhi Golf Club, a demanding 6,882-yard par-72 layout full of ancient Mughal tombs and massive porcupines.

\nIn 1990 Oberoi retired from the Indian Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel, and for the last few years he has pursued a second career that his friends think is bizarre: Oberoi is a golf course developer and architect.

\n I met Oberoi over a dinner of lamb stew, chemeen thoren (stir-fried prawns with coconut, mustard and tamarind) and curried vegetables at the Spice Route restaurant in New Delhi.

\n "Golf here has gone mad," said Oberoi. "We have a pro circuit. We have golf magazines and TV shows. Everybody is getting into golf."

\n"Everybody?" I asked. "You have more than a billion people."

\n"Maybe I exaggerate," said Oberoi, "but in the last 20 years we've gone from 20,000 golfers to more than 100,000, while the number of courses has only risen from 150 to 200, so there's room to capitalize."

\nGolf has a long history in India. The British introduced the game to the subcontinent in the early 1800s and built dozens of courses, including the four oldest outside the British Isles. (Royal Calcutta, which opened in 1829, is the most venerable.) But the cricket-mad Indians rarely played golf under British rule, so the game virtually disappeared after India gained independence in 1947.

\n Golf's recent renaissance has dovetailed with India's staggering economic growth. While several hundred million Indians still live in poverty, there are 10 million people in the upper class and 300 million in the middle class, and in these circles golf is gaining a foothold.

\n"Where's the best place to see the golf boom?" I asked.

\n"There's no place like Bangalore," said Oberoi.

\nIt's 6:30 a.m. at Eagleton, India's only golf resort, and the tranquility of the dew-swept grounds is a stark contrast to the chaos I witnessed seven hours earlier, when my flight touched down at Bangalore International, perhaps the most dilapidated and jampacked major airport in the country.

\n During a whirligig taxi ride through the overcrowded city, as we swirled around rickshaws, bicycles, squatters, cows, goats, dogs, cats and chickens, my driver told me that the lure of jobs has doubled the population of Bangalore, to 6.5 million, in the last two decades. But, he said, the city's infrastructure hasn't kept pace.

\nConsidering my sleep deprivation and culture shock, I have a good excuse for lipping out a three-foot par putt on Eagleton's 1st hole, a par-5, but my three Indian playing partners show me no mercy.

\n"You got Bangalored!" says Nandkumar Dhekne, a regional director of GE Energy in India.

\n"What's that?" I ask.

\n"In America it means you lost your job because it was outsourced to India," says Dhekne. "When golfing here, it means you got a bad break."

\n\nDhekne is a typical Indian golfer. Now 50, he's well-educated (he received a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Bombay), a good cricketer (he was the star of his college team) and has worked in the U.S.

\n While munching on a fried-egg sandwich at the snack bar near the 7th green, Dhekne tells me why he took up golf six years ago: "Because my joints were too creaky for cricket, and golf is pretty good for business."

\nEagleton is an attractive new world for upwardly mobile Indians. The $10 million resort sits on 460 acres, has a 108-room hotel and boasts a Peter Thomson-designed course, a hilly 6,632-yard par-72 with the largest and slickest greens in India. Eagleton also has some of the city's hottest real estate — the price of a quarteracre lot has risen 1,000%, to $325,000, over the last five years. Since the club opened in 2000, more than 1,500 people have paid the $7,500 lifetime membership fee.

\n "It's the only place where you can pay and play today," says Dhekne.

\n Bangalore has only five other courses. Three are owned by the military, and the other two, KGA and Bangalore Golf Club, have decades-long waiting lists.

\nAfter topping his drive at 14, a 364- yard par-4, Dhekne, a 20 handicapper, holds up his driver and points it at the sky. "This thing stinks!" he says.

\n"What is it?" I ask.

\n"A knockoff of the TaylorMade R5. I got it for $30 in Shanghai," Dhekne says.

\nOn the 18th tee he asks me to try his driver. I rip one down the middle.

\n"Want to buy it?" asks Dhekne. "Twenty bucks."

\n"No thanks," I reply. "In America we have a phrase for golfers like you. We say, 'It's not the arrow; it's the Indian.'"

\nBangalore was a soporific outpost in the early 1980s. There were two hotels, no office parks and so much green space that it was called the Garden City. In 1985 Texas Instruments opened a research facility in the city and thus became the first multinational company in modern India.

\n Today Bangalore is a concrete jungle at the nexus of the global economy and home to India's richest man (Azim Premji, founder of the software company Wipro) and woman (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of the pharmaceutical giant Biocon).

\nAnother Bangalorean hoping to strike gold is Amit Saran. But Saran, 51, is into golf.

\n "Golf is a real business model that's only going up," Saran tells me while sipping a double espresso at an outdoor cafe in town. "Look at all the yuppies around us. They have disposable income. My job is to persuade them to spend it on golf."

\nWith an MBA from Allahabad University, Saran spent 21 years as an executive at a zipper company before starting SPT Sports, a marketing firm focused on golf, in 1998. His first project was to design a three-hole pitch-and-putt course on the Infosys corporate campus in Bangalore.

\n"Are you an architect?" I ask.

\n"No," Saran says, "but I never say no to a good offer."

\n\nToday Saran organizes corporate golf outings and owns a driving range, one of only five in India. The range, which opened in 2004, is on seven acres on the outskirts of Bangalore.

\n"Everybody, even my wife, thinks I'm crazy," says Saran, "but my passion is golf. I know I can make it."

\nI don't need to ask where to aim on the 1st tee at the KGA (Karnataka Golf Association) Golf Course in downtown Bangalore. Only a blind man couldn't see the huge neon IBM sign atop the glass office building behind the 1st green. Nor do I have to ask where not to aim. There's a neon Microsoft sign atop the glass building to the right of the green, and a shot hit in that direction is OB.

\n"The history of KGA epitomizes the transformation of Bangalore," says Krishnakumar Natarajan, the CEO of Mindtree, a software consulting company, as we stroll down the 1st fairway. Also designed by Thomson, the fivetime British Open champ from Australia, KGA is a flat 6,786-yard par-72 layout on what used to be guava and coconut fields owned by the city. In the mid-1980s some golfers cajoled city fathers to lease them the land for a rupee (a little more than two cents) per acre a year.

\n"Sounds like an anti-Robin Hood story," I say.

\nNatarajan, a 22 handicapper who took up golf three years ago, smiles. "Things like that happen a lot in India," he says.

\nThe gleaming five-million-square-foot office park to the right of KGA's first five holes is on terrain that also used to be farmland. It was owned by an indigent mute who collected errant golf balls and sold them to players through a chain-link fence. "That man is rich now," says Natarajan. "A developer paid him $2 million in the late 1990s."

\nHearing such stories is more than half the fun of playing golf in India. On the 4th tee I ask my partners about the towering floodlights on the course.

\n"Some guys here want night golf, so suddenly these lights appeared," says Ramesh Rao, a high-tech headhunter playing with us. "The project cost half a million bucks."

\n"How did the club pay for that?" I wonder.

\n"We offered 15 corporate memberships at $50,000 each," says Rao. "They sold out immediately."

\n"How often do you use the lights?"

\n"Never," says Rao.

\n"Why not?"

\n"The airport authority hasn't given permission," Rao says. "They think it's unsafe because we're right next to the airport. But a lot of the pilots are golfers, so we're working out that issue."

\nI thought I had seen the world's most hellacious road while driving into Bangalore from the airport. Then Kanishka Saran drives me and his father, Amit, to Amit's driving range. The last five miles are two lanes of mud littered with boulders, trees, garbage and potholes.

\n"Forgive the appearance," says Kanishka. "We just had our wettest month ever — more than 20 inches of rain."

\n\nKanishka, an energetic and soft-spoken 26-year-old, is one of only two golf equipment sales reps in India. Kanishka, who got an M.B.A. from the prestigious International Management Institute in Delhi, and the other rep work for TaylorMade. Kanishka and his partner, who are based in New Delhi, had $900,000 in sales in their first year, 2004. They grossed $2 million in '05 and more than $3 million last year.

\n "The growth potential is a salesman's dream," says Kanishka.

\nIn contrast, Amit's range business is struggling. His range has 22 bays covered by a thatched roof and a lush grass landing area, but so far only 180 golfers have paid the $115 annual fee for an unlimited number of balls.

\n "Does golf really have a future in India?" I ask Amit. "There it is," he says, pointing toward his son, who's talking to two potbellied men a few bays away. The men are hitting balls with rusty old clubs, but Kanishka\nquickly persuades them to try new Taylor- Made irons. Suddenly, Kanishka hurries to his car and returns with his briefcase. Each man buys a $600 set of irons.

\n"There is hope," says Amit. Bangalore's Leela Palace is a $500-a-night, 256-room hotel fit for a maharaja. I visit for Sunday brunch with some bankers from Goldman Sachs, who also play a lot of golf.

\n"A friend and I were paired with this 80-year-old guy at KGA, and he was barking all day," says Chris Oberoi, 30, a vice president at Goldman Sachs. "He thought my friend and I were too loud and didn't know the proper etiquette."

\nAs we fill our plates with lamb kebabs, coconut almond fried fish and fennelscented crab salad, Oberoi fills me in on his plans for the Goldman Sachs office in Bangalore. Named Crystal Downs after the legendary course in Frankfort, Mich., the building is in the Embassy Golf Club Business Park, adjacent to the 2nd and 3rd holes at KGA.

\n "I want to build a putting green on our 1,000-square-foot roof terrace," says Oberoi.

\nBack at the table Ritesh Gadhiya, a 33-year-old tech executive at Goldman Sachs who spent eight years in the U.S., describes his passion for the game.

\n "Indians are addictive, which is why we love golf," he says. "I was mesmerized the first time I hit a shot — at a pitch-and-putt in New Jersey. I was hooked right away, so I went home and subscribed to Golf Channel. Now I hit plastic balls around our house, and I'm teaching my daughter."

\n"How old is she?" I ask.

\n"One and a half," Gadhiya says.

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