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Swinging time for India Inc

V Krishnaswamy | April 05, 2003

For Sanjay Sharma, country manager, Swarovski, it's more than just a game. At least twice a week the dapper, young Sharma is on the golf greens chipping away at his handicap.

But Sharma doesn't stop at that. Swarovski has sponsored three tournaments and Sharma himself has played 15 pro-am tournaments this year against the country's top professional and corporate golfers.

Sharma is part of a growing tribe: the corporate golfer who can't stay away from the lush greens of the Delhi Golf Club or the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. Once upon a time they might have played with other top corporate honchos in the early morning hours before heading to the office.

Today, they are just as likely to be teeing off in pro-am (pro-amateur) tournaments or in events sponsored by companies like SRF, Alfa Laval or Air Sahara.

Says Sharma: "The fact that there are 60 pro-am tournaments in a season shows the growing popularity of golf in the country."

In fact, the Indian golfing season is jam-packed like it has never been before.

Last week, a clutch of corporate chieftains gathered in Delhi for the Royal Challenge Tournament, the biggest event in the Indian golfing season (they played before the professionals went into action).

On Monday, many like Sharma will be playing in the SRF Tournament in Delhi. And Sharma, who won the Delhi leg of the Air Sahara tournament, will be heading off to either Bangkok or Malaysia for the finals of the tournament.

Who are the stars of the corporate golfing circuit? Many of the corporate world's best known names can be spotted on the golf course. Take ITC Chairman Yogi Deveshwar who is a regular at many corporate events.

Or Pawan Kant Munjal, joint managing director, Hero Honda Motors, who has put millions into the game and given golf a hard-hitting hand. Or, there's DLF Chairman K P Singh who liked the game so much that he built his own course, the verdant DLF Greens in Gurgaon.

Head south and there's N Srinivasan, chairman India Cements who is passionate about the game. Or, move into the banking world and there are players like Mihir Doshi, vice-chairman & managing director, JM Morgan Stanley Securities.

And Rabo Bank's Rana Kapoor is a 16-handicap player who is generally reckoned to be a rising star amongst the corporate world's top players.

Some top corporate honchos have always been fans of the game. Take Satish Tandon, chairman and managing director, Alfa Laval who has been teeing off and putting for decades.

During tournaments Tandon loves to team up with cricketer-golfers like Kapil Dev and Madan Lal. In fact, Alfa Laval even gave out a trophy last year for the best cricketer-golfer. The winner: Kapil Dev.

As the corporate golfing circuit gathers strength there's hardly a free weekend for new companies that want to get onto the course.

Brandon de Souza's Tiger Sports does about 40 to 45 events each year. Similarly, IMG does about 15 events.

The biggest event of the corporate golfing season in terms of sheer numbers is probably the Merchant's Cup held each year in Kolkata. It's held over eight days and about 900 golfers gather for the seasonal rites. The winner walks away with a highly coveted cup.

But as a clutch of new multinationals have made their way onto the golf courses, even the amateur events have a bit more razzmatazz attached to them.

Take, for instance, Chivas Regal which sponsors the World Corporate Challenge at La Manga in Spain. Winners from around the world, including India, head to La Manga for the final tee-off.

Everyone says that golf is both a relaxation and a great way to network and make new friends. Rana Kapoor, for instance, meets new clients on the course and then inks deals soon after.

"Golf is a great game," he says, and that isn't only because his handicap is coming down and he keeps winning trophies these days.

The fact is that golf is a tremendously disciplined game. But it's also the place where a CEO or president might decide who he wants to do business with.

Says one CEO, "After a round with one of the other top guys, who I played with once, I decided I never wanted to do business with him. Every time he marked his ball on the green, he would move the marker an inch or two further towards the cup. In business, it might mean gaining an inch, but it says little about ethics. If that's how he is on a golf course, I don't know what he will do in business."

Adds Tandon in a similar vein: "I meet a lot of people in my business. But I wouldn't have become as close to so many, if it were not for golf." His company now sponsors a series of corporate golf events across the country.

Certainly, friendships are made all the time on the course. Air Sahara's Uttam Kumar Bose usually likes to tee off with Suvendoo Ray of Boeing who has a 17 handicap or with Brandon de Souza.

Similarly, Deveshwar also likes playing with de Souza. Shyam Bhartiya of Jubilant Organosys used to play with the late Madhavrao Scindia.

There's never been any credible study about Indian golfers. But such exercises have been carried out in the US and Europe, where corporate golf is an industry by itself.

One such survey about four years ago revealed that the typical corporate golfer is around 40 years of age, has an income of around $100,000 and plays around 24 rounds a year, which works out to about two a month.

Since then the valuations have certainly risen according to industry specialists like de Souza, a former professional, who now runs Tiger Sports Management.

Says de Souza, "The income of the corporate golfer has increased substantially, the number of rounds he plays has gone up. I know of Indian CEOs and presidents who play almost once every weekend and their vacations are decided by whether or not a golf course is in the vicinity."

One such enthusiast is Bose who has been the moving force at Air Sahara's thrust into corporate golf. Air Sahara has in the last two years already spent huge sums on corporate golf and plans to spend even more.

Last year, Bose, a keen golfer himself, with the help of Tiger Sports put together a huge event called the Achiever's Cup.

The Achiever's Cup gave a new touch of class to the corporate golfing world. The players invited were chairmen, presidents, CEOs and managing directors. They were flown, with their wives, by first class from their homes.

In Delhi, they were given limousines for two days, put up in five-star hotels and taken to play a round of golf at Jaypee Greens.

Their goodie bag, a giveaway to all golfers at such events, included the normal stuff like T-shirts and caps but there was also a Swarovski crystal each and a copy of Tiger Woods' latest instructional book.

Bose says, "These are the people I would like to do business with. They are the topmost. Golf gives us all a chance to meet each other in a relaxed atmosphere. And it gives us three to four hours and maybe more with each other. You cannot get a fraction of that time anywhere else."

What about Deveshwar? ITC has a big stake in the Classic Golf Resort, about 35 km from Delhi plus ITC is into sportswear through its brand Wills Sport.

Deveshwar's presence is not just ornamental or simply because his company is one of the biggest sponsors of golf. He is looking to furthering his brands, and in some sense acts as a brand ambassador for his own company.

Each autumn he also heads to Katmandu where Surya Tobacco, which is part-owned by ITC, holds a major tournament.

More figures: In US golfers in 2000, golfers spent more than $3.6 billion on golf clubs and other equipment, excluding golf balls. Merchandise and accessories like T-shirts, gloves etc were additional.

The value of the consumption of golf balls in the world in 1997 was estimated by Golf Digest at around $1 billion dollars with almost 80 per cent of that in the United States.

Now, it does not need a rocket-scientist to see why Indian companies are looking at the market for golf balls.

Greg Norman's 'shark' shirts are now available in India, as are other brands. The same goes for equipment.

Bhupendra Nagpal, CEO, Royal Sporting House, which recently set up shop in India after building hugely successful businesses in South East Asia, recently signed up star golfers Jeev Milkha Singh and Jyoti Randhawa as brand ambassadors for Mizuno equipment.

Nagpal says, "Once the Indian golfer, corporate and amateur, realises that all that stuff, which they once found only in Singapore or United States, can also be got in India itself, the industry will boom. That will then take golf to a higher platform, not only as a business but also as a sport."

The organisers of corporate golf, like TSM and IMG understand the importance of the corporate events. Which is why great care is taken when draw sheets for such events are made.

"It is important we make the right groups with fourballs. We try to understand the golfers and who is close and friendly to who. That helps the golfers to build up relationships with each other and as a result helps their business," says Digraj Singh of TSM, which organises nearly 40 to 50 corporate events in a year. "Golf is not just a game. It is an industry," he adds.

It was humorist P G Wodehouse who delivered judgement on golf and its relationship to character. "The only way," said the humorist, "to find out a man's true character is to play golf with him."

That's a sentiment that clearly has many supporters in the Indian corporate world. "Golf is all about honesty, integrity and dedication," says Munjal.

A relationship, an industry, honesty and integrity. All those nice little words when brought onto a golf course add up to a lot of birdies and eagles.

And, in case you didn't realise it, a huge bank balance to boot at the end of it all. Corporate golf has indeed come a long way.

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: Very good for Indian Golfers

Hello guys, this is good new for Indian golf and golfers as well, I was born in India and moved to us with my family ...

Posted by Zakriay, (Zack)


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