During a round at Royal Calcutta, my host, Sanjeev Mehra, pointed to the top of a decrepit 25-floor apartment building by the green at No. 15, a straightaway, 502-yard par 5. Mehra was telling me about the madcap, fraternity-like golf antics that he, Daniel Chopra, and some others used to indulge in at the course two decades earlier.
"Chopra and the rest of us clowns, we had no brains," Mehra said with a huge laugh. Mehra, a scratch player, is the Rodney Dangerfield of Royal Calcutta and the older brother of Simi Mehra, the only Indian to have played on the LPGA Tour.
"We were wild, mad wild," he continued. "We would try to hit balls from here" Mehra and I were in the 15th fairway, 25 yards short of the green, while the building was 75 yards to the left of the green "so they would fly over the top of the apartment house."
"Did anybody ever clear the roof?" I asked.
"Don't think so," said Mehra. "But Chopra came close. The guy is a madhouse."
This was 2004. I'd never met Chopra, who won his first PGA Tour event on Monday morning at the Ginn sur Mer Classic, but after hearing stories about him from Mehra, I was enthralled. Mehra painted the picture of a freewheeling, fun-seeking guy who could smack his balata straighter and farther than anybody. And that was saying a lot, because Royal Calcutta had a small army of strong players. The Royal Calcutta brat pack from the late 1970s to the late 1980s also included Arjun Atwal, who is also on the PGA Tour, and several other players who have had success on the Asian and Indian tours.
When I finally met Chopra, a year later at the Tour event outside Hartford, he lived up to Mehra's expectations. He told jokes, laughed and was extremely polite, basically the opposite of many of his fellow Tour players. I also liked Chopra's bleach-blond hair. "How much does that hairdo cost?" I asked.
Chopra smiled. "Have to ask my wife," he replied.
Chopra's Web site (danielchopra.com) is an extension of his persona. It includes a picture of Cosmo, his black puggle who has a similarly arresting biography. The dog, among other things, likes to run and snore; he "relishes chicken jerky"; his favorite Tour stops include the Players and Colonial; and he shares a birthday (Dec. 23) with his owner, Daniel.
Chopra's ascension from the ratty fairways of Royal Calcutta, the world's oldest course outside of the British Isles, to the winner's circle on the PGA Tour is a fairy tale. The child of an Indian father and a Swedish mother, Chopra considers himself Indian. That's why he has an Indian flag and "INDIA" printed underneath his clear putter grip. Chopra moved from Sweden to Delhi when he was 8 to live with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather, Dev, was a founding member of Delhi Golf Club, a wonderful layout that hosted the Indian Open a few weeks ago. It was Dev who introduced Daniel to golf while the family was at its summer home in Kashmir, which in the early and mid-1980s was a peaceful haven.
Daniel played with Dev at Kashmir Golf Club, and the little boy was a quick study. Daniel was so eager to play that he designed a few holes in the mountain forests around his family's house in Kashmir. "I would chop down some bushes and things to make room for greens," says Chopra. "That's where I really learned the short game. I owe my success in golf to what I learned in Kashmir."
Back in Delhi, Chopra, who turned pro at 19, played at Delhi Golf Club every moment he wasn't in school. He honed his deft short game with zany chipping and putting games amid the Mughal tombs scattered around the course. "We'd have chipping and putting games for Coca Colas and ice creams over, through and inside those tombs," says Amit Chopra, a cousin who now lives in Newport Beach, Calif. "We often got in trouble with the committee for doing that."
Chopra's Tour victory is huge news in Indian athletic circles. Golf is quickly gaining popularity in the world's second most populated nation, at least among those upwardly mobile men and women who can afford the game, and Chopra is beloved by Indian golfers because he's such an affable person. The win also gives India bragging rights over China, its global rival in everything from business to sports, and a country that has been pushing hard to develop world-class professional golfers.
What does the future hold for Chopra? More golf, of course. Chopra is the Tour's ironman, and this week at Disney World in Orlando, Chopra's adopted hometown, he'll play in his 34th event of the year. That will give him more starts than anybody in the top 125 on the money list. I once asked Chopra why he played so much golf.
"Where I'm from, you learn to appreciate every chance you get to play this amazing game," he said. "And if I would go home for a week, I would just play golf anyway. So I might as well get paid for doing what I love."