Gini Kahlon has found serenity in golf-plush Northern California.
Yuba City, his adopted hometown 40 miles north of Sacramento, is referred to as “Mini Punjab” for its large population of Indian and Pakistani immigrants. At Peach Tree Golf and Country Club in neighboring Marysville, Kahlon regularly joins Indian American friends for a round of golf.
Gini’s brother enjoys a rare sporting luxury in his native India – golf access.
Colonel Vini Kahlon, son of an Indian army officer and a 30-year veteran himself, has access to the nation’s military golf courses and plays about four rounds per week in the northern city of Chandigarh. With about one third of courses in vast army cantonments, often far from metropolitan areas, it’s no surprise Indian military families produce many elite golfers.
The brothers regularly chat about a sport – inaccessible to most civilians in their native country – that is seeing a rise of Indian golfers at the professional ranks. Last week in Connecticut, Sahith Theegala again nearly became the first Indian or Indian American to win a PGA Tour event since Arjun Atwal edged David Toms by a stroke at the 2010 Wyndham Championship.
When Anirban Lahiri placed second at The Players Championship in March, the Kahlons raved over a golfer who, like them, comes from a military family. Megha Ganne, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, was in contention at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open. In January, Akshay Bhatia, a Southern California native, won on the Korn Ferry Tour. At the 2021 Summer Games, Aditi Ashok nearly won India’s first Olympic golfing medal. Her fourth-place finish enthralled viewers.
“Ashok had the entire nation spellbound,” said Indian sportswriter Vishwanathan Krishnaswamy, or Swamy as he’s known in golf circles that recognize him a sage of the Indian links. “During the fourth round, I was on Twitter with 120 other people explaining what everything meant and the magnitude of this achievement. Of course, it didn’t materialize. And Anirban was so close to the Players Championship. When it finally breaks through, that will galvanize the sport and sponsors will come in and children will want to play.”
Peach Tree Golf Club
Gini Kahlon immigrated to Canada in 1999 and met his wife, Swipen Grewal. The couple soon moved to Boston, where Grewal undertook a United States residency in family medicine. Kahlon found an IT job and began playing golf with coworkers. After the couple moved to Maine, the husband joined a golf club. When his mother and father visited from India for six months in 2010, Kahlon hired a taxi to shuttle his father to the course each day.
In 2013, after Grewal’s residency expired, she was given the option to work in an underserved U.S. region or return to Canada. The couple chose Yuba City. Kahlon, who still does remote IT work for the Boston company, joined Peach Tree. His first rounds were with Sonny Kalkat, one of about 20 Indian members at the course. When Kalkat, at age 45, died of a heart attack in 2015, the club hosted a tournament honoring the region’s agricultural leader.
On a May afternoon, Gini tees off with Hardeep Sahota, a college friend of mine who, at age 38, is one of the club’s younger Indian members. Sahota’s parents immigrated in the early 1980s to the Sacramento Valley, where a convergence of rivers produce fertile soil similar to farming regions of northern India and Pakistan. Now in their late 60s, mother Tarnjit and father are among Sikh farmers who produce a high percentage of the region’s peaches, prunes, almonds and walnuts. Yuba City’s annual Sikh parade, a celebration called Nagar Kirtan, draws up to 100,000 revelers each November. Today, about 10,000 Sutter County and Yuba County residents are immigrants or descendants from the Punjab region.
When Sahota was a child, his parents took him to a flea market across the road from Peach Tree. The Indian American boy peered through bushes to make out sand traps and greens, perhaps a swing or two. “It was my Augusta,” said the elementary school teacher, walking the fifth fairway of a course that hosted a U.S. Open qualifying tournament in May. After college, Sahota began playing sparingly – maybe once per year “with a set of Walmart clubs” – before joining Peach Tree in 2019. The coronavirus gave him plenty of time to hone his game.
With the club’s monthly membership fees soon to be raised by $100, Sahota’s public school teacher’s salary will be stretched thin. “What else am I going to do in this area?” he asks rhetorically, gesturing to the vast farmland spanning most of the 40 miles between remote Marysville and Sacramento, the nearest major city. “Bitcoin is killing me.”
As a fellow first-generation Indian American, Sahota gravitates to Theegala. During a college event shortly after Kobe Bryant’s death, Theegala honored his favorite NBA player by wearing Bryant’s jersey to victory. Sahota grew up rooting for Reggie Miller, and was once surprised by a call from the Indiana Pacers great after a friend gave the 3-point marksman Sahota’s cell.
When Theegala was contending at the Phoenix Open in February, Sahota struggled to come up with an Indian or Indian American athlete who made a significant impact on American sports. Satnam Singh was drafted in the NBA but became a professional wrestler. Sim Bhullar signed with the Sacramento Kings, owned by Indian businessman Vivek Ranadive, but never played an NBA game. Brandon Chillar and Sanjay Beach are believed to be the only Indian players in NFL history, but neither are household names. MLB has yet to have a breakthrough player. Neither the Indian men’s or women’s national soccer teams are ranked in the top 50.
Jeev Milka Singh
Indian golfers have had plenty of success on the European Tour (Jeev Milkha Singh became the country’s first member in 1998), but none have had a sustained impact on the American-based PGA Tour. Sweden-born Daniel Copra, who moved to India at age 7, won on the PGA Tour in 2007 and 2008, but has played in only two majors since. Atwal became the first India-born PGA Tour member in 2010, but hasn’t played in a major since 2011 and has never made the cut in one. Lahiri, 34, has shown the most potential among current Indian golfers, finishing fifth at the 2015 PGA Championship and sixth at a 2018 World Golf Championship event.
Indo Pakistan War
The Kahlon brothers were raised in western India military cantonments as their father, Colonel Jagga Singh Kahlon, flew helicopters for the army. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, a 13-day affair rooted in the division of India and Pakistan during 1947 independence from Britain, Jagga’s chopper took fire from the Pakistan army. Later in his service, when instructing flight schools kept him on one base for longer periods, Jagga took up golf. Gini and Vini witnessed their father’s passion for the game, but education came first.
“In India there is less emphasis on sports,” said Gini, who moved to Canada after earning an engineering degree. “If I told my mom or dad I wanted to concentrate on sports, I would be pushed around a lot. You don’t say I want to play golf or tennis professionally. Now things are changing. When we were growing up it was frowned upon. You get your degree.”
At the few public courses in congested cities of India, golfers must pass an exam and pay monthly membership fees. Securing a tee time poses another problem. India, a nation of about 1.4 billion people, has one course for about every five million residents. The United States, with about 330 million people, has about one course per 22,000 residents.
“In India, golf remains an elitist game,” said Vini, who lives in a region with one million people and three golf courses (one on a base). “To the common man, golf is pointless. They can’t access the course if they’re not a member. There’s a big gap between the haves and the have nots. It’s very difficult to get to a golf course, and to play good golf is a different story altogether.”
In the United States, golf’s popularity among Asians has grown in recent decades with Tiger Woods, whose mother is Thai, and Vijay Singh, from Fiji, ascending to No. 1 in the world. Asian women dominated the world rankings soon after Se Ri Pak’s victory at the 1998 U.S. Open. For families now immigrating from India, acclimating children to new sports is often a priority.
“It’s a very common theme of Indian parenting that you give your kids things you could not do,” Indian golf writer Joy Chakravarty said. “Every father and mother of all these Indian origin golfers, they never played the game. But when they went to America, they heard about it and wanted their kids to have access to the game. And that’s what you’ll find with Sahith, with Akshay, with Megha. And education is another factor. A lot of Indian parents have found that if your kid is good at golf, the chances of them getting scholarships increases a lot. They want their kids to be good at golf, but education is in the back of their mind.”
Royal Calcutta Golf Club
In 1829, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club – the first club outside of Great Britain – was built under British rule. And by the time golf came to America in the late 1800s, several courses existed in India – played exclusively by British royalty and the military. In 1955, eight years after India’s independence, the Indian Golf Union was established. Australian golfer Peter Thomson, who often visited India en route to playing in the British Open, helped launch The Indian Open in 1964, and won. The nation’s first international tournament would become its longest running international sporting event before the pandemic canceled the 2020 contest.
“Modern golf culture came in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Swamy, who has written books on The Indian Open and India’s historic courses. “In the 1980s we started having signature courses, mostly around Delhi (a city of nearly 20 million in northern India).”
The Flying Sikh
Swamy considers Jeev Milkha Singh, who in 2006 became the first Indian golfer to break into the top 100 of the world rankings, to be “the Christopher Columbus of Indian golf.” Singh’s mother was captain of the national volleyball team and his father finished fourth in the 400 meters at the 1960 Summer Games. “He missed a medal by a whisker,” Swamy said of Milkha Singh, known as The Flying Sikh. “It is the most treasured fourth place finish in India.” At the time of the race, independent India’s only individual Olympic medals had come in wrestling.
Jeev continued his family’s athletic tradition by playing golf at Abilene Christian in Texas. He turned professional in 1993 with several amateur wins to his credit. When the Asian PGA Tour was formed in 1994, India’s top players had a home circuit. Singh’s first victory came in the 1995 Philippine Classic. “He showed the path for Indian golfers,” Swamy said. Singh won four times on the European Tour and, in 2007, became the first Indian player to compete at the Masters. In 2009, he had his best major finish, tied for ninth at the PGA Championship.
While Singh ascended to early fame on the Asian Tour, Chakravarty was establishing himself as a sportswriter at The Indian Express, a daily newspaper with a cricket-focused sports department. Chakravarty’s father was a mining engineer, and as a child Joy bounced from mining towns with no golf course in sight. When he graduated with a marketing degree from Nagpur University in central India, Chakravarty had still never played a round of golf.
“We’d get magazines and newspapers and there’d be a small column about Davis Love winning the PGA Championship,” said Chakravarty, recalling his few childhood memories of the sport. “Golf was alien to me when I started in college. Only after I moved to the metro area in India and started working as a sports journalist did I start reading more about golf.”
His first sports editor at The Indian Express was Swamy.
“I used to cover a lot of cricket,” Chakravarty recalls of his first assignments. “I was living in Mumbai, known as a cricket hub, and I had difficulty talking to club-level cricketers. They would show up an hour late to interviews. Then I started covering golf, and the thing that impressed me was how punctual the players were. If they said 5 o’clock, like a tee time they would be there at 4:58. I could see it was a sport that built different characteristics and traits. I started playing, myself. I left every other sport and started focusing on golf.”
Muralidhar Theegala also never played golf as a child. He grew up in a civilian household in Hyderabad, an industrial city in southern India with architecture dating to the 16th century Mughal Empire. Nearly four decades after immigrating to Kansas for college, Theegala now treks America to watch his son, Sahith, contend in PGA Tour events.
“I was not aware of golf in India,” said the IT manager for a Southern California water district. “Cricket was my love. We never heard of golf when we came to this country. When Tiger started playing, that’s when my friends and I started playing. Just nine holes on a Saturday morning. Then I took lessons with them.”
Sahith consumed American sports on the living room couch by his father’s side. “One day I asked if he wanted to hit some balls,” Muralidhar recalls. “He said, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ ”
When the Theegala family visited India in 2010, nearly 30 years after the Asian PGA Tour was established and deep into Woods’ reign, golf had gained popularity. “Now I think it’s a little more prevalent,” Muralidhar said. “A few of my cousins play regularly.” Muralidhar and Sahith played at a new United Arab Emirates-funded development in Hyderabad.
“You need public courses and public driving ranges,” said Swamy, who estimates 35 courses have been built in India over the last decade. “I am an advocate of six-hole courses. I know the tradition is nine and 18, but you have to improvise. If you started having six-hole courses, I think it would do the game a lot of good in countries where land and equipment is at a premium.”
The golf historian said military courses are opening to civilians. Nearly a decade ago the national auditor questioned whether golf should be considered a military activity, getting pushback from golf-loving officers. Chakravarty said a public course will soon open in New Delhi, India’s capital, but acquiring land for championship links is difficult. “If you get 130 acres of land in a good location, any developer is thinking if I make another 100 condos I will get the money when the project is complete,” he said. “Golf courses aren’t top of mind for developers.”
Chakravarty often calls Theegala to chat about his prodigal son, Sahith, who at 24 years old has earned nearly $2.6 million from a sport his father never grew up playing.
“When Sahith gets hot, he can make birdies like crazy,” Chakravarty said. “I tell his father that he has a Seve streak in him,” referring to late Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros’ creativity with different shot shapes. “I have never seen Sahith hit a straight shot, ever. There’s all kinds of adventure going on around him. And obviously he’s uber talented.”
At Pepperdine, Theegala won the Haskins Award as national collegiate golfer of the year in 2020. He turned professional after the coronavirus shutdown, and in October of 2021 found himself with a one-shot lead heading into the final round of the Sanderson Farms Invitational in Mississippi, one of the more unassuming PGA Tour stops. It was Sahith’s first PGA Tour event without family in attendance. With his son in contention, Muralidhar considered flying to the tournament, but thought that he might jinx the lead. Instead, the family watched in Southern California. Sahith finished eighth, but offered a glimpse of his remarkable ball striking.
“Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la!”
In February at The Phoenix Open, boozed-up fans chanted Sahith’s name – “Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la!” – as he walked off the 16th green, where the par-3 stadium seating provides the rowdiest scene in golf. Tied for the lead on the 17th hole, a short par 4, Theegala struck what seemed to be a solid drive – “I thought I hit a great shot,” he later said. However, the ball bounced left on the fairway, rolled through the green and into a lake. He was unable to get up-and-down for par. Though Theegala narrowly missed a playoff, he gained a following with his emotional play and willingness to embrace the crowd.
“That’s awesome that they feel I’m somebody they can root for,” Theegala said while wiping away tears at his post-tournament press conference. “It means a lot to me. … I’m going to give my family a big hug and tell them thanks.”
Muralidhar, who has since joined Sahith on PGA Tour events in Florida and Texas, notices more Indian fans following his son’s playing group. “That kick-started a lot of interest,” he said of Phoenix. “After that we made it a point to get extra tickets.”
The father also gets approached by fans asking about his family background.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ And I say, ‘California,’ ” Muralidhar said. “And they repeat the question. Some of my friends get bothered. People want to find out where you really come from. I’ve lived here long enough; I’m from California.”
A Sense of Belonging
As Kahlon and Sahota head to the parking lot after a quick nine holes, they run into 18-year-old Gurkarn Ghoman. The River Valley High School senior is late for practice, but makes time to chat with the elder club members. Ghoman’s older brother, Guramrit, won the Peach Tree club championship while in high school and now attends Cal. Gurkarn will attend UC San Diego in the fall. Both brothers hope to make their university’s golf team.
“This is my home course; I play here every day,” said the younger brother, eager to join his friends on the links. Ghoman considers Tiger Woods his favorite player, but is excited for the prospects of Theegala and Lahiri, and appreciates the Indian American presence at his home course. “A lot of Indian people didn’t play golf before, and it’s getting bigger in the area.”
The Ghomans recently moved to Yuba City after purchasing a prune and almond orchard. Gurkarn has worked in the fields, helped install a new irrigation system and rode the tractor – centuries of Sikh farming tradition and expertise bestowed on another generation.
“It’s a sense of belonging and community,” Kahlon said of Peach Tree. “That’s where I first met Hardeep. He was hitting on the range, and generally you don’t find that many Indian people on a course. I introduced myself and said, ‘Nice to meet an Indian guy hitting golf balls.’ ”