The Indian Open Begins
Seven years after the formation of the IGU, came the next big year for Indian golf when the Indian Open, now sponsored by Wills Sport and known as the Wills Indian Open, was launched. The first Indian Open was played at the Delhi Golf Club and the legendary Australian golfer, Peter Thomson, five-time winner of the British Open, became the first winner of this prestigious event. This marked the beginning of the first true international golf tournament in India. On the final day, Thomson shot a five-under 67 with five birdies and an eagle, a round that is still etched in the memory of fans at the Delhi Golf Club.
Thomson, who won the Indian Open thrice (1966 and 1976), was a superstar in world golf at that time and was instrumental in the birth of the Indian Open. During his numerous journeys to Europe and the US, he used to make a halt in India frequently and became an instant Indophile. Thomson was among the first to recognise the potential of an Indian Open and is said to have bounced off the idea with the Indian Golf Union. To ensure the success of the tournament, Thomson himself played the event regularly, adding much needed star value and charisma. He also got top guys like Guy Wolstenholme of England, Angel Miguel of Spain, Ben Arda of Philippines and Mr Lu of Taiwan to participate.
Billoo Sethi Does India Proud
In 1965, the second year of the event, PG (Billoo) Sethi swelled every Indian hearts with pride when he beat a strong foreign challenge, including Thomson, to win the title as an amateur. On a par-73 Royal Calcutta Golf Course, Sethi shot five-under 68s on the opening two days to win by a huge margin of seven strokes.
In 1969, India received its first major recognition when it was invited to participate in the World Cup Qualifying event at Singapore. Ruda Valji, a revered figure from Willingdon Sports Club, Mumbai and Shadi Lal of Delhi Golf Club, formed the Indian contingent.
In 1970, the Indian Open received a major boost when it joined the Asian Golf Circuit and the field became stronger and stronger thereafter. In 1971 at Delhi, Australian Graham Marsh and David Graham, winner of two majors in the US PGA Tour, were involved in a thrilling duel with Marsh, who scored successive 66 in the first two rounds, winning by one stroke on the final day.
The Swinging 70’s
In the meantime, the Ladies All-India Amateurs continued to be played at the RCGC till 1970 before being rotated among various clubs. 1970 was also the first year when an Indian ladies golfer became the winner – the honour going to Mrs NM Desai of Willingdon Sports Club, Mumbai. Mrs Desai repeated the act in 1971 when the event was played at the Bombay Presidency Golf Club.
The Aussies continued to dominate the Indian Open in the 70s with Brian Jones winning in ’72 and Marsh again in ’73. In 1976, Thomson won his third Open, his first in Calcutta. He later ascribed the win to the fact that he had helped redesign the Royal Calcutta Golf Course and that none knew it better than him. In 1982, the late Payne Stewart, twice winner of the US Open, won the title leading from the start to finish.
India’s first major victory in a team championship came in 1977 when Raj Kumar Pitamber, Vikramjit Singh, Alan Singh and Lakshman Singh combined to win the Nomura Cup at Jakarta, Indonesia to be crowned Asia-Pacific Golf champions.
Asian Games Triumph
After the success of Nomura Cup, it took another five years before one of the most glorious chapters of Indian golf history was written. In November 1982, India shocked a quality field including countries like Japan and Korea, to win the gold medal at IX Asian Games in Delhi. ‘Bunny’ Lakshman Singh, Rajeev Mohta, Rishi Narain and Amit Luthra represented the Indian team, while Achal Nath was the reserve player. Not only did India bag the team medal, but almost made a clean sweep of the individual medals with Lakshman Singh winning the gold and Mohta taking the silver. Rishi Narain lost the bronze to Japanese player Sakata by one stroke when he bogeyed the final hole, while Sakata managed to drain a nerve-jangling 10-footer par putt.
Prior to the start of the Games, it was expected that the Indian team would definitely finish in the top-5, but not many gave them a chance of winning the gold. However, the Indians used their knowledge of the intricacies of Delhi Golf Club to the hilt, while the competition got caught in the thick bushes lining the fairways. Lakshman Singh, Mohta and Narain more than made up for the sudden loss of form by Luthra and with just three best scores out of four counting, they combined well to chalk a 16-stroke victory over Korea and Japan, who took the silver and bronze respectively.
Formation of the PGAI
While IGU was doing its best to promote the sport in India, it was felt that for a more single-minded devotion to the upliftment of professional golf, a separate body was required. The first seed of the formation of the Professional Golfers Association of India (PGAI) was sowed in 1988, but it took almost six years before the Association was actually formed.
While good news kept pouring now and then for the Indian team, the individual professionals kept faring poorly barring the success of Billoo Sethi in 1965, and there were many who thought the local golfers only made up for the numbers in the Indian Open. Things finally began to look up in 1990, when Calcutta veteran Basad Ali stood third behind Andrew Debusk and Carlos Espinosa.