‘Rise of Rai, Sharma could have huge effect on golf’

03 Feb, 2019 - 00:02 0 Views

The ManicaPost

Increasing participation in golf is the primary concern of all bodies running the game. Now those efforts could be significantly boosted by the emergence of two young talents of Indian descent.

Fresh from the victory of Wolverhampton’s Aaron Rai at the recent Hong Kong Open, Shubhankar Sharma became the youngest Indian to wrap up the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit.

Both players are capable of stimulating interest in largely untapped markets of vast potential.

After playing all four majors and the full set of World Golf Championships in 2018, the 22-year-old Sharma has also been named Rookie of the Year on the European Tour.

“This year has been a huge learning curve for me,” Sharma said. “I’ve played in some of the biggest events I could ever imagine and learned a lot.

“I know I have the game to be among the best in the world and I just want to keep playing well and give my best shot.”

If Sharma comes close to fulfilling the promise he has shown in his fledgling career, the implications could be massive. “The effect will be absolutely mind blowing,” Jas Athwal, a Yorkshire-based campaigner, told BBC Sport.

“Especially in India, to have a major winner from that continent would be great. This young man seems to be fantastic and seems to have all his game together, just like Aaron.

“So you keep your fingers crossed and as long as he keeps working hard I’m sure he will be in with a shout.”

Athwal started the burgeoning Waterstone Park Golf Society and has run community programmes in the Yorkshire area to introduce golf to inner-city schoolchildren of Asian descent.

“It would be a big boost in the arm for Asian golf which we have been championing for 20 odd years,” he said. “To give us a role model for the kids to look up to would be fantastic.”

Immediately after last month’s victory in Hong Kong, which has made him the early leader of the Race to Dubai, the 24-year-old Rai told BBC Sport of Sharma’s potential impact. “An amazing player, a great symbol for India and already a superstar,” he said.

“Then you’ve got Julian Suri from America who also has Indian origins from his father’s side, and Jack Singh Brar, who is British Asian and has just had an incredible year on the Challenge Tour. He will have a great career ahead of him.”

But despite this, there are fears that golf’s administrators will fail to maximise the benefits of successes from this constituency of players.

“These guys might open up the doors because previously no one has ever listened to us with regard to promoting golf,” said Athwal, who was the UK’s first Sikh golf club captain.

“Nothing has changed for the last 30 odd years, there’s no involvement with the R and A or anybody else, so we just carry on with ourselves.”

Nevertheless, he has witnessed a significant increase in interest among British Asian golfers, bucking overall participation trends. “It’s grown immeasurably,” Athwal said.

“Up and down the country there are now hundreds of societies, people holding tournaments just like ours which started with us way back in the day.

“Where there was hardly anybody playing, now we have to turn people away from our events and likewise other events.

“This community has grown golf where golf has been [otherwise] stagnant in memberships and so on and so forth. They are trying to find innovative ways to make golf more sexy but the thing that’s in front of them and the community that’s growing it, they are ignoring.”

In the professional game there has been a steady stream of talent emerging from the Indian sub-continent; the likes of Jyoti Randhawa, SSP Chowrasia, Arjun Atwal, Jeev Milkha Singh and Anirban Lahiri.

Now it feels as though there is real momentum and we can add the exciting Sharma and, from a UK perspective, Rai into the mix.

Their impact has the potential to stretch way further than that of most 20-somethings emerging on the scene.

Athwal would like to think they might prompt renewed interest in the sort of projects he has been running for the past two decades.

“Hopefully Aaron and people like that make people sit up think ‘ooh bloody hell — these guys have been doing it for 20 years, let’s find out what they’ve been doing and what their ideas are about golf,’” he said. — BBC Sport.

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