Golf may be trivial during a pandemic, but livelihoods are not

The sport itself might seem like a trivial pursuit, but its practitioners are human and significant. It is important for the PGTI Tour to resume as soon as possible

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The HGA Golf Course - Venue to the Golconda Masters

01 June 2020: Sport is trivial, especially in the face of a pandemic with a degree of fatality associated with it. The full extent of the damage caused by coronavirus will only be understood many months from now. And not all of it may be death alone. There are also fears that COVID-19 could be causing potentially irreversible damage to the lungs and kidneys in certain cases. We will need to wait to see the results of substantive studies that shall emerge in due course of time.

In the immediate realm though, it is clear that livelihoods are being dissolved under the massive wave of contagion that has disrupted life and commerce around the world. While the challenges of a situation in this nature far exceed sport, it would be myopic to ignore the fact that sport is just as intertwined into life as any other activity in life. Over the past 50 years, television has transformed the sport into an industry that dances with excellence to produce entertainment.

As the lockdown and restrictions affect business and life, they also impact sportspersons and support teams that have built careers around the sport. It is a profession for the various actors associated with the game – caddies, course managers, and coaches etc. who make a living from the sport, besides the players themselves.

Contrary to perception, golf in India is not the preserve of the elite. Especially competitive golf. Several of the top stars on the PGTI Tour have emerged from humble backgrounds, many of them working as caddies and around the course, before taking a full tilt at the game. The loss in livelihoods is real. And several of these golfers and their teams cannot afford to be away, just as the vast working-class population in India. While some of the employed classes have been less affected due to work from home opportunities, sport cannot afford such a luxury.

The sport itself might seem like a trivial pursuit, but its practitioners are human and significant.

“This lockdown is tough for everyone. Financially, mentally and physically. From travelling and playing all the time, to doing nothing is one of the toughest changes professional golfers have had to endure. It is very easy to get demotivated,” explained Udayan Mane, the order of merit leader on the PGTI Tour.

“I think most of the young professionals are staying at home and have the support of their families. As far as the lesser fortunate professionals are concerned, the golfing fraternity is a close-knit community and golfers that are economically better off,  have stepped up and contributed financially.”

While that is heart-warming to read, it clearly isn’t a sustainable plan. The opening of golf clubs last week has been met with a resoundingly warm response around the country. The vast expanse of the golf course offers plenty of room for social distancing. The fact that the PGA TOUR is expected to resume at the Colonial in two weeks is also an encouraging sign for the sport. The European Tour has also followed suit by laying out a plan for resumption later this year. But with golfers’ resident around the world, how they might be able to travel and play remains a big question mark, considering quarantine and safety regulations.

Unlike the international tours, PGTI could find it relatively less complicated with domestic flights resuming in India. Indian golf also needs a push forward and the PGTI Tour would do well to emulate other sectors in the economy to prepare a 1.5m social distancing protocol to enable golfers to resume their season on the domestic circuit.

Several clubs and golfers in India have also made an effort to set aside money for support to staff and caddies around the country. But some of them have not been able to access these resources as they have been locked into hot spots with limited mobility. “A lot of caddies are unfortunately in containment zones and only proper care and vigilance will see them out safely,” explained Mane. “They can return to work soon and start earning money. Many clubs have already opened up and caddies are in full demand.”

Last year, an average golfer inside the top 60 of the PGTI Tour made a little more than one lakh per month. You could expect their caddies to be making an average of twenty thousand or thereabouts every month. But if you slice the order of merit data – the top twenty make an average monthly income of 2.17 lakhs, while those between 21st and 40th make 91,000 with those between 41st and 60th making only 51,000. It is these livelihoods that are at stake and the life of golfers in India is as much in chaos as those in other sectors of the economy. It would be a tragedy to undermine their existence simply because they are professionals that is often erroneously perceived as a rich man’s circus. It isn’t.