Do we have balls to golf?
Over the past 40 odd days, golf courses across the country have all closed their doors owing to the Covid-19 lockdown. Outside of the golf courses, the clubhouses have also downed their shutters.
In the meantime, there are enough and more videos and links to news pieces, updates and advisories from across the globe floating around suggesting that golf is indeed a sport that honours social distancing norms, albeit with a few very minor adjustments. Last week there was one issued by GIA (Golf Industry Association of India) floating around too. Ok, that’s pretty cool that they made the effort to initiate the discussion.
It's ever so easy for all and sundry to say they shall use a pull cart, or a golf buggy, with the younger set stating they will carry their own golf bag, all possible to do, in theory at this point.
Where does this sit in reality, in the Indian context?
We just need access to the golf course and we will manage, is the common narrative. There’s lot more to golf operations than just preparing the golf course. For one, many golf courses don't have enough parking space in the main car parks and the cars are taken away by valets. At some clubs, satellite car parks are used and golfers ferried by golf buggies to the clubhouse and back.
Major professional tours are all scheduled to restart – PGA, LPGA and LET Tours in mid-June and European Tour towards the end of July, all sans allowing spectators on ground. However, there will be support staff, events will be broadcast and truncated services provided to players and staff. Do keep in mind these are positions largely driven by sponsorship and broadcast agreements and may still alter on the basis of the way things turn out over the next few weeks. The biggest challenge the Tours face will be the movement of human traffic across states or countries via air.
So how much is the golf industry really going to lose? Who in their right mind can quantify this just yet. The industry losses are not just limited to losing corporate golf outings and outbound travel to international golfing destinations. Neither are they limited to professional or national amateur golf events being postponed (not cancelled as things stand at present). It’s also not about the direct revenue loss through club bars and restaurants being temporarily closed. This is just the surface, and far from the reality of how golf runs in India.
What about the invisible pillars of this industry, the caddies who are dependent on their golf clubs for earning their livelihood? Even when golf restarts, how many clubs will have the caddies back. Let’s be real, we all know it’s unlikely to happen for another 4-5 months at the earliest. There is also the minor detail of the monsoons being a month and a half away and many caddies in metro courses being migrants.
What about the other staff that run the golf bag storage rooms, pro shops, ball pickers on the driving ranges, golf course and machines maintenance staff, cloak room attendants, security, waiters and cooks too. Not always all of them are directly employed by the clubs, in many establishments these services are contracted to vendors. With the clubs being shut, where do these payments come from? Not all clubs have deep cash reserves and some of them will have to let people and vendors go. Eventually, who looses their job?
Then you have the caddy-turned-professional lot who have had the courage to take the initiative to educate and upgrade themselves via the NGAI (National Golf Association of India) but need the revenue from everyday lessons to bring food home. Some work as independent contractors, some are employed by the clubs and then some work for private academies that are set up at some golf clubs. They will neither get covered by their respective clubs’ ‘caddie welfare program’, nor as an employee of the club they teach at.
The golf equipment we use to play the game, the machines in the shed that present us perfect playing conditions, there are importers, distributors and retailers involved in the supply chain. There are warehousing costs, products on high seas or still at ports, credit lines from banks and forward selling payment terms. The truth is no money will change hands for months.
The young professional golfers who have just started out on the PGTI (Professional Golf Tour of India) and are still learning their craft and pretty much apprenticing at their 'job', they will struggle to make ends meet. Not all of them have the resources to sit another year out. Then there are the willy veterans who don't exactly rank in the Top 20 on the 'Order of Merit', but earn enough to live respectably but without significant savings. Surely, the PGTI will have some reserves and plans to create a fund to tide this lot over the next few months until the tour resumes in September or October. Governing bodies in sport have to start thinking this through, if we aren't going to help our lot, who will?
Whilst the IGU (Indian Golf Union) doesn't need to 'look after' their amateur players, they certainly need to think about helping the teaching professionals who are loyal to their teaching arm, the NGAI. Is there a plan being worked out to assist them or the referees and officials who work all year around at their 30-odd golf events?
Let's be clear… at this point it seems no government, no ministry, no state body is even thinking about the sports industry, of which the golf industry is really a very, very small part. They have bigger problems and battles to overcome which we are aware off. Perhaps at a later date, when the dust settles, the sports industry may get a look in. At this point, it would be foolhardy to await assistance.
Several individuals have helped independently or in small groups, young students too have set up crowd funding platforms. Each one has to play their role.
The clubs have the elected managements, our sports governing bodies have their leadership, and this really is the time to bring it to the table. Right now, it's on us to see this through because help isn't coming from outside.