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Toni Oberoi, a vivacious 56-year-old Sikh, is a 10 handicapper at Delhi Golf Club, a demanding 6,882-yard par-72 layout full of ancient Mughal tombs and massive porcupines. In 1990 Oberoi retired from the Indian Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel, and for the last few years he has pursued a second career that his friends think is bizarre: Oberoi is a golf course developer and architect. � I met Oberoi over a dinner of lamb stew, chemeen thoren (stir-fried prawns with coconut, mustard and tamarind) and curried vegetables at the Spice Route restaurant in New Delhi. "Golf here has gone mad," said Oberoi. "We have a pro circuit. We have golf magazines and TV shows. Everybody is getting into golf."
"Everybody?" I asked. "You have more than a billion people."
"Maybe I exaggerate," said Oberoi, "but in the last 20 years we've gone from 20,000 golfers to more than 100,000, while the number of courses has only risen from 150 to 200, so there's room to capitalize."
Golf has a long history in India. The British introduced the game to the subcontinent in the early 1800s and built dozens of courses, including the four oldest outside the British Isles. (Royal Calcutta, which opened in 1829, is the most venerable.) But the cricket-mad Indians rarely played golf under British rule, so the game virtually disappeared after India gained independence in 1947. Golf's recent renaissance has dovetailed with India's staggering economic growth. While several hundred million Indians still live in poverty, there are 10 million people in the upper class and 300 million in the middle class, and in these circles golf is gaining a foothold.
"Where's the best place to see the golf boom?" I asked.
"There's no place like Bangalore," said Oberoi.
It's 6:30 a.m. at Eagleton, India's only golf resort, and the tranquility of the dew-swept grounds is a stark contrast to the chaos I witnessed seven hours earlier, when my flight touched down at Bangalore International, perhaps the most dilapidated and jam-packed major airport in the country. During a whirligig taxi ride through the overcrowded city, as we swirled around rickshaws, bicycles, squatters, cows, goats, dogs, cats and chickens, my driver told me that the lure of jobs has doubled the population of Bangalore, to 6.5 million, in the last two decades. But, he said, the city's infrastructure hasn't kept pace.
Considering my sleep deprivation and culture shock, I have a good excuse for lipping out a three-foot par putt on Eagleton's 1st hole, a par-5, but my three Indian playing partners show me no mercy.
"What's that?" I ask.