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Sport

Where the greens are greener

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TRAIL BLAZER: Jeev Milkha Singh (in orange, centre) celebrates holing a putt for victory during a playoff against Italy's Francesco Molinari on the 18th green during the final round of the Scottish Open in Inverness this July. Jeev's forays into the world's toughest Tour have been nothing short of extraordinary

With The USPGA Tour Set To Discard The Q-School, Indian Pros Are Divided On The Best Route To Golf's Most Lucrative - And Demanding - Circuit.

When Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra had famously said that there's "void at the top" after his individual Olympic gold at the 2008 Beijing Games, he was highlighting the anxiety of a sportsman after achieving the sport's biggest honour. The Olympics, without doubt, is the benchmark of athletic achievement. However, the same doesn't hold true for a sport like golf, which will become part of the Games after 112 years at the Rio Games in 2016.

USPGA is without doubt the most lucrative Tour in the world, but golfers have always taken different routes to reach that summit. One needs to have a lot of money to take up the challenge plus, of course, the requisite skills to excel there. Four-time European Tour winner Jeev Milkha Singh is the only one who had some memorable finishes on the USPGA besides Arjun Atwal, who after winning the Wyndham Championship in 2010, did nothing of note and is on the verge of losing his card for the next season with just two events remaining. Atwal is 171st on the FedEx Cup and anyone outside 125 is considered ineligible for a conditional card.

Jeev played in the US by virtue of breaking into the top-50 in world rankings that also fetched him automatic places in Majors. Atwal secured a card through the qualifying school (Q-school ) in 2004.

"I did think of playing in the US initially, but the amount of travel one has to undertake to compete there made me think otherwise. It's only good if you can set-up a base there like Arjun (Atwal) did, " says Jeev, who showed resurgence in form with his Scottish Open victory this July.

Kolkata's Rahil Gangjee is competing on the Nationwide Tour, now coined Web. Com Tour, but has not been able to impress with only five top-25 finishes from 44 starts since qualifying in 2011.

"It's not easy to play in the US. One has to spend a good sum to have a private accommodation there. I shuffle out around $70, 000 on home rentals. If your daily bread depends on just golf, it's a big risk. I felt it was time that I took it plus I have a couple of friends living there who leased part of their house before I moved to a new place, " Gangjee had said during the CG Open in Mumbai last year.

Gangjee's citymate SSP Chowrasia, on the other hand, is focussed on battling out chilly conditions in Europe "as a committed husband" despite having initial troubles with the weather. "I have no problems dealing with European conditions. It's just that the competition is higher there... I am just about reaching that state of comfort, " the 2011 Avantha Masters champion says.

Seasoned pros Jyoti Randhawa and Shiv Kapur tried their hand in Europe but their efforts met with disappointment. So where do the top pros go next after graduating to the Asian Tour? A close look at Jeev's career is enough to suggest that scaling the USPGA is like a movie with too many sub-plots.

Jeev never took the Q-school route and whenever he found the going tough, switched to Japan to make a return, earning vital ranking points in return. It seems a popular strategy as many Indian golfers are giving Japan's Q-school a try instead of the USPGA, which will abolish it from next year.

"I am not going for the USPGA Q-school as I am still very young and have no problems going through the Web. Com Tour. Moreover, I will go for the final stage of the Japan Tour qualifying in November, " says promising youngster Gaganjeet Bhullar, who completed a wire-towire victory at the Venetian Macau Open two weeks back, to rise to 120 in world rankings. Bhullar did go for the US qualifiers last year but ended without success.

Digvijay Singh, who ended a 12-year wait for his first Asian Tour title with the Panasonic Open this March, echoes Bhullar's words. "If you are thinking of graduating to a bigger tour like Europe, Japan is the place to be. It's easier for one to win an event on the Japan Tour and figure in the top-50 of the world than USPGA or any other tour, as it offers more world ranking points. So I would go for the Japanese Qschool next year, " said the Delhi-based professional, who has an Asian Tour card till 2014. The higher the ranking of the participants, the more ranking points there are on offer. This is where Japan scores over the newly launched OneAsia Tour.

But some golfers are still not convinced. Bangalore lad Anirban Lahiri, who hogged the limelight with his hole-inone on debut at the British Open, will go for the USPGA Qschool to see if he has the potential to reach the highest level.
"This is the last time they are having a Q-school. So, all the more reason to grab the chance as it will be tough to graduate through the Web. Com for someone like me, who is not a US resident, " says Lahiri, who recently finished tied fifth in the Hero Indian Open.

Meanwhile, there is another group of Indian pros who are content playing on the PGTI, which has grown into a 31-event tour since its inception in 2006. Ashok Kumar, Mukesh Kumar, Vijay Kumar, Shamim Khan have posted consistent results on the Indian circuit so far and even done well on the Asian Tour co-sanctioned events. But they are satisfied earning good prize money on home soil, rather than think of treading into a hitherto unknown territory.

"It's not that they didn't try. Vijay played in many tournaments in south Asia. It's the same for Shamim too. Another golfer Feroz Ali played in many events on the Thai tour and few in Korea as well. But when you don't get good results, you get reluctant to experiment, " says PGTI director Uttam Singh Mundy.

"The expenses are much more when you are playing outside the country - hotel, flights etc. So, maybe these golfers are unwilling to let go of that sum. They are familiar with Indian conditions plus our tour has grown as we added 4 to 5 events in the last two years including the feeder tour - the biggest being the McLeod Russell Tour Championship. All the more reason for them to be happy here, " explains Mundy.
It's time such golfers understood the importance of venturing out into a bigger tour as it lets them make a name across the world and inspire a new generation of youngsters to take up the sport.

PROMINENT NAMES PLAYING OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY


Jeev Milkha Singh (European Tour, Japan Tour, Asian Tour) Jyoti Randhawa (European Tour, Asian Tour) Arjun Atwal (USPGA, Asian Tour) Shiv Kapur (European Tour, Asian Tour) SSP Chowrasia (European Tour, Asian Tour) Rahil Gangjee (Web. Com Tour, Asian Tour) Digvijay Singh (Asian Tour) Gaganjeet Bhullar (Asian Tour) Anirban Lahiri (Asian Tour) Himmat Rai (Asian Tour) Chiragh Kumar (Asian Tour) Gaurav Ghei (Asian Tour).

PROS WITH MAJOR APPEARANCES


Jeev Milkha Singh:

US Masters - 3 (2007 - T-37, 2008 - T-25, 2009 - MC); US Open - 4 (2002 - T-62, 2006 - T-59, 2007 - T-36, 2009 - MC); British Open - 2 (2007 - MC, 2012 - T-69 ); PGA Championship - 4 (2007 - MC, 2008 - T-9, 2009 - T-67, 2012 - MC).

Jyoti Randhawa:


British Open - 3 (2000 - MC, 2003 - MC, 2004 - T-27 ); PGA Championship - 2 (2007 - WD, 2008 - MC).

Arjun Atwal:


US Masters - 1 (2011 - MC); US Open - 1 (2010 - MC); British Open - 1 (2004 - MC); PGA Championship - 2 (2005 - MC, 2011 - MC)

Gaurav Ghei:


1997 British Open (MC).

Shiv Kapur:


2006 British Open (MC).

Gaganjeet Bhullar:


2009 British Open (MC).

Anirban Lahiri:


2012 British Open (T-31 ).

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