Boomtown

Boomtown

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Eagleton looks like a Myrtle Beach Club.
Rick Lipsey

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.

In 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.

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.

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

“Everybody?” I asked. “You have more
than a billion people.”

“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.”

Golf 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.

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.

“Where’s the best place to see the golf
boom?” I asked.

“There’s no place like Bangalore,” said
Oberoi.

It’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.

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.

Considering 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.

“You got Bangalored!” says Nandkumar
Dhekne, a regional director of
GE Energy in India.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“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.”

Dhekne 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.

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.”

Eagleton 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.

“It’s the only place where you can pay
and play today,” says Dhekne.

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.

After 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.

“What is it?” I ask.

“A knockoff of the TaylorMade R5. I
got it for $30 in Shanghai,” Dhekne says.

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

“Want
to buy it?” asks Dhekne. “Twenty bucks.”

“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.'”

Bangalore 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.

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).

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

“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.”

With 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.

“Are you an architect?” I ask.

“No,” Saran says, “but I never say no
to a good offer.”

Today 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.

“Everybody, even
my wife, thinks I’m crazy,” says Saran,
“but my passion is golf. I know I can
make it.”

I 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.

“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.

“Sounds like an anti-Robin Hood story,”
I say.

Natarajan, a 22 handicapper who took
up golf three years ago, smiles. “Things
like that happen a lot in India,” he says.

The 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.”

Hearing 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.

“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.”

“How did the club pay for that?” I
wonder.

“We offered 15 corporate memberships
at $50,000 each,” says Rao. “They sold
out immediately.”

“How often do you use the lights?”

“Never,” says Rao.

“Why not?”

“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.”

I 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.

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

Kanishka, 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.

“The growth potential is a salesman’s
dream,” says Kanishka.

In 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.

“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

quickly 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.

“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.

“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.”

As 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.

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

Back 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.

“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.”

“How old is she?” I ask.

“One and a half,” Gadhiya says.


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