PAR FOR THE COURSE

Tags: Knowledge

Hitting the fairways with former golfer Rishi Narain, now in the business of getting Indian corporates to engage with golf

THE Americans and the Japanese were probably the first to discover that the golf course functions very well as an alternate business venue. By its very nature, it is a fairly secluded space for discussions away from prying eyes and ears. Post World War II in particular, the fairways and greens of courses around the world were where many commercial partnerships and marriages were consummated.

As a spin-off from this came the Pro-Am, a tournament that businessmen would use to bring together prospective clients and customers and woo them with the presence of stars of the golfing world. Carrying this concept forward a little further is the relatively recent trend of golf events almost entirely involving the corporate world.

Scratch a corporate animal and more often than not you will find a golfer lurking close to the surface, so drawing them out of the boardrooms and committee meetings onto a golf course where they get to mingle with friends and foes makes for sound commercial sense.

Ask Rishi Narain, who has been in the business of convincing the Indian business world to engage with golf and one gets an idea of how much of a slog it has been. Narain, himself a player of no mean ability and member of the Indian gold medal-winning team of the 1982 Asian Games, besides a number of achievements on the greens, has now made a livelihood of bringing together sport and commerce, initially through a stint with the International Management Group and thereafter in the form of his own company, Rishi Narain Golf Management.

The concern, which describes itself as one that works with corporate and business houses to use golf as a marketing platform for customer engagement and brand awareness, today has a packed calendar, with between 60 and 70 events as Narain himself put it, but it has been a long road. Currently running the Louis Phillipe Cup inter-city event at the Bombay Presidency Golf Club that pits 27 of the top professionals on the Indian tour with as many amateurs from nine cities around the country, he recalls a time when prize purses were a fraction of what they are now.

“When we launched the Honda-SIEL Open back in 1995, we offered Rs 15 lakh and a car at a time when the total at an average professional event was between Rs 1 and 1.5 lakh. It was a quantum jump and I was lucky because Siddharth Shriram came to us to do an event that was different from the others. After I got back from my studies in the US where it was a learning as to how golf is marketed, it became something of a mission to tell and show corporates in India how they can benefit from golf, and thereafter to focus on the sustainability of whatever I would offer to them or actually start.”

Narain rues the vast gap between the player and the fan in the existing structure of Indian professional golf. “There is no connect between the two. Professional events are played, the golfers come and go, and almost no one notices. The Louis Phillipe Cup is an attempt to bridge that gap, and bring more players – pro and amateur – together.

“The idea came from the Alfred Dunhill Cup which was then an international team competition that has now evolved into a four-day full-fledged Pro-Am. It offers a prize money purse of around ¤5 million. These events have achieved a level and public recall that are as big as some of the major tournaments and that was the template I had in mind when this event was on the drawing board.

“And to make the connect between the pros and amateurs we brought in the idea of an inter-city event so that instead of being just a club competition, which would again limit the out-reach, there would be an emotional link among the amateurs to what was going on — even among those who had played the qualifiers and failed to get to the national finals.”

Narain however, feels that the ability of the sport to reach out is reaching a saturation point. “First of all it was hard to convince the Indian business world to look at the game simply because the player pool is a fairly limited one. Overseas corporate back such events because there are huge communities they can reach out to, a paint company or a steel giant that backs a tournament limited to architects or the builder community, for example We just don’t have that many players. “The other problem is the lack of facilities. It is getting increasingly expensive to promote events here because there are too few golf courses. We did an event in the UK — for an Indian Company — that was actually cheaper that if we had held it here.”

This is why, he says, the business is nearing a plateau. “Even though we have a fairly busy calendar the limitations are growing. Clubs these days have a “take it or leave it” policy to hire out their courses also because members don’t like to be deprived of their time out on the fairways. Unless we improve and expand facilities this will continue.”

That is one reason RNGM is working on a National Handicapping Service, which will free players of the need to be members of a club or institution to get a handicap that is essential for competitive play. But that is a subject for another day. For the moment, it is the Louis Phillipe Cup that stands front and centre.

(Rahul Banerji is the sports editor of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle)

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