October Issue 2015

By | Sports | Published 4 years ago

It’s nearly 11 in the morning as we make our way to the 18th tee. The match is all square coming to the final hole. As my opponent, who happens to be a professional golfer, tees up, he asks, “So, you’re a journalist huh?”

“Yes,” I reply, as I watch his drive pierce the fairway, travelling nearly 300 yards, with a short pitch shot left to attack the pin. Subsequently, I shank my tee shot into the woods and the match is lost.  During our walk back to the clubhouse, the professional speaks up again: “Think we can talk?”

Over the course of the next few hours, we chat about golf in Pakistan. And it’s quite an eye-opener. Pakistan has a whopping 78 courses, most of which are owned and operated by the armed forces. The game is also regulated and promoted by the defenders of our borders, with more than 50% of the sport’s 21 executive committee members being former men in uniforms.  Only two professional golfers are included.

“Golf is being governed by those that have no idea about the sport,” says the professional. He has requested anonymity as he continues to compete on the national circuit. “The executive committee takes decisions without considering its impact on those that play the game, and we don’t even have any mechanism to challenge these decisions.”

A recent example of this high-handedness is the implementation of a pre-tournament qualifying round. While the top 30 ranked players are exempt from this, the rest must first pass the qualifier to partake in the main event. “Consider this: the Prime Minister’s Cup is from the 9th to the 11th of October, the Cedar Open is from the 12th to the 14th, and the Punjab Open from the 15th to the 18th. With such a jam-packed schedule, how will golfers be able to manage playing the qualification rounds?” says the professional. “Not everyone is aiming to be Pakistan’s top golfer, some make a living being 35th, the PGF (Pakistan Golf Federation) is making it harder and harder for these golfers to survive.”

Another top 20 golfer takes things a little further. “The PGF takes 5% of all tournaments’ prize money, yet does absolutely nothing for the welfare of those that play the game. Imagine, a golfer gets injured mid-season, he has no other source of income, shouldn’t there be some mechanism by which this player is supported while he is unable to play?”

My retort was simple: “Why is there not a players’ union which can protect the players’ interests vis-a-vis the PGF?” The pro lazily points to a group of players studiously practicing their short game at a practice green on the side, and immediately I understand.

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Pakistan’s professional circuit is mostly made up of what I like to call, reluctant golfers, who due to their proximity to a course, or to someone with access to a course, or by being a caddy, somehow got into the game. With rare exceptions, most are from lower middle class backgrounds, with limited education and even lesser exposure. In short, they are unwilling and perhaps unable, to take a stand for their rights.

Per se, the inclusion of two professional golfers in the PGF’s executive committee is so that the golfers have a say in the decision-making process, but what with the busy tournament schedule, the cost of travel to attend the EC’s meetings in Rawalpindi (The PGF does not pay), and the voting process, their inclusion is nothing more than showmanship.

But these are some serious allegations from the golfers, most of which are casually turned away by Brigadier (r) Nayyar Afzal, the honorary secretary of the PGF.  “Golf isn’t cricket. As things stand, there is little money in golf, and the PGF has to use money earned through the amateur clubs circuit to manage the professionals tour.”

As one of its revenue schemes, the PGF gets a portion from the individual member’s subscription from every golf course in the country. While the PGF takes credit for raising more than Rs 3 crores as the total prize money for the professional tour, the truth is that they only decide the prize money and it is raised locally by the hosting club via sponsors. And from this amount, 5% goes back to the governing body.

Addressing a major gripe of the professionals, the brigadier maintains that the previous method of regional pre-qualification had not only led to the sport being hijacked by a handful of professional players, hampering the possibility of newer talent to emerge, but also resulted in dishonest gamesmanship and groupings during tournaments. “The new pre-qualification method not only opens up the field for everyone, it also makes it more competitive,” he says. “Previously, you either qualified for the whole year, or you didn’t. “

However, this runs contrary to international practices. Take the United States Professional Golfers Association (USPGA) tour for example. To qualify for the coming year, professionals need to compete in a rigorous and highly competitive qualification process, known officially as the PGA Tour-Qualifying Tournament, or Q-School. Those that do not qualify, have to go through the entire process again. The same happens on the European Tour.

What is most surprising is the PGF’s belief that the welfare of the golfers does not form part of the federation’s mandate. “We barely have the funds to do what we do, and besides, our mandate is for the promotion of the game in Pakistan, why should we get involved in their insurance, in their children’s education?” This is ironic, as any game is only as good as the people that play it.

I only played a round with a former secretary of the PGF. Somewhere along the course, the conversation drifted towards how Pakistani golfers have not been able to make their presence felt on the Asian circuit. The former secretary snickered, and said, “How can they play good golf, when they’re busy searching for their tees?”

That is Pakistan’s golf dilemma in a nutshell. They have been left to largely fend for themselves, and while there is a growing murmur of discontent and mutiny, the players wait silently for that one person who would be willing to stand up and take on the PGF.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.