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Golf: The course of friendship

Four business heads turned to golf and discovered not just a competitive sport but a game that nurtures lasting bonds

Deepti Chaudhary
Published: Nov 28, 2015 06:32:15 AM IST
Updated: Nov 19, 2015 06:20:00 PM IST

There’s no denying the pull of golf. Over centuries, the sport, which can be traced back to 15th century Scotland, has attracted the rich, the elite and the powerful. The club of recreational and amateur players includes world leaders and politicians (Mary, Queen of Scots, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice, to name a few), celebrities (Will Smith, Jessica Alba, Halle Berry) and, of course, CEOs (Chevron’s John Watson, former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer and IBM’s Virginia Rometty, among many others).

Its appeal lies in its contradictions: Golf is a demanding game that can last up to four-and-a-half hours and requires absolute concentration. But at the same time, as Puneet Chaddha, CEO of HSBC Asset Management (India), points out, its leisurely pace allows for conversations to unfold and associations to be formed.

The late US amateur golf player Bobby Jones Jr (1902-1971), who co-founded the Masters Tournament, said that golf is the “closest game to the game we call life”. “You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots, but you have to play the ball where it lies.” Its ability to mimic life, while at the same time offering players an outlet to relax and reflect, makes it all the more appealing.  

Business heads and amateur players say golf gives them a break from their hectic schedules and come to terms with the fact that life may not always go their way. That’s why they keep going back to the greens. Many have built a life around the game. Aluri Srinivasa Rao, managing director, private equity, at Morgan Stanley, India, for instance, only buys apartments next to golf courses. Ajay Srinivasan, chief executive, financial services, Aditya Birla Group, makes it a point to play on new courses wherever he travels. And Vipin Sondhi, MD & CEO of JCB India, hopes to play golf even at 90.

And therein lies the beauty of this sport: Unlike football or cricket, that can wreak havoc on the body, golf is not ageist.

Last but not the least, for those who are, by virtue of their positions in the organisational hierarchy, isolated at the top, the golf course offers the possibility of friendships, a happy outcome at any stage of life.

Golf: The course of friendship
Image: Joshua Navalkar
Puneet Chaddha
CEO, HSBC Asset Management (India)

Golf is more than just a game for Puneet Chaddha. “It is an integral part of maintaining my sanity,” says the 50-year-old India head of HSBC Asset Management. Blame it on his wife, Shefali, who was an avid golfer herself before her marriage. She got him hooked onto the game when they were dating, even before they eventually got married in 1991. “Maybe I got into it to woo her,” says Chaddha with a smile. Over the years, golf has become an important part of his life, and his morning routine.

At least twice a week, between 6.30 am and 11 am, he can be found putting at The Willingdon Sports Club in Tardeo, Mumbai. His other favourite haunts are Oxford Golf and Country Club and Aamby Valley Golf Course, both in Pune, Maharashtra.

Chaddha values the game all the more when he is dealing with a tough situation. It provides a break from reality as it demands the player’s concentration and attention. After all, there’s a reason why CEOs, presidents and prime ministers are attracted to the game. “And it’s not to network,” insists Chaddha, who has no time for people who see golf only as a means to further their careers. “I can pick out those who are there for networking. You play for the love of the game.”

He seeks golf for the seemingly odd blend of solitude and friendship that the game offers. “As you grow professionally, it gets a bit lonely at the top. There are large teams; you need time to yourself, to reflect on issues. I find golf a perfect antidote to such situations,” says Chaddha. “You are by yourself for four to four-and-a-half hours, and get a lot of time to reflect. You can have a beer later with friends. It’s very relaxing.”

Through golf, he has acquired a large group of like-minded friends. He has 16 friends, all senior executives across different fields, who make it a point to carve out time from their hectic schedules to go on an annual golfing holiday. “We’ve been doing this for three years. This year, we will be visiting Vietnam, and will have three days of just golfing. They are my extended support system,” he says. Not a bad reason to play the game—not by a long shot.

While not superstitious by nature, Chaddha doesn’t count the number of holes when he is playing well. “Counting has a bad effect. I don’t entertain conversation when I am playing well,” he says. His passion for the game is reflected in his ‘golfing’ wardrobe: 10 shoes, more than 50 caps and 40-50 T-shirts.

Golf: The course of friendship
Vipin Sondhi
Managing director and chief executive officer, JCB India

Vipin Sondhi is an old golf hand, having been introduced to the game a quarter of a century ago. The now 55-year-old MD & CEO of JCB India took it up in the 1990s when he was stationed in Jamshedpur with Tata Steel. He played the game diligently for five years, after which he went on a long hiatus, only to return to it a few years ago. “Golf helps me unwind. It also needs a lot of discipline…it builds your character,” says Sondhi, who currently lives in New Delhi.

He loves playing at the sought-after Delhi Golf Club, which is rumoured to have a 30-year waiting period for prospective members. It is a lush green 18-hole championship course with peacocks wandering along the fairway. Sondhi likes its old-world charm and historic relevance: The course houses the Lal Banga—two Mughal mausoleums that date back to the 18th century.
He prefers to play with a group of friends who, in a throwback to their youth, call themselves the Awesome Foursome. “We are of similar temperament and play the game in a very friendly spirit, even relaxing the rules if one of us is having an especially bad day,” he says.

Sondhi says he is not an obsessive player and mulls over his game between shots. While the four friends play to a variety of scoring systems, it is never about winning or losing.

“As long as we have given it our best,” says Sondhi.

That said, he works diligently towards improving his game. He goes to the practice range at the Delhi Golf Club once a month and hits 50-60 balls to improve a particular shot.

The joy he derives from the game is not limited to the time spent on the course. He finds the entire process relaxing. It starts with the anticipation of waking up at 4 am on a Saturday morning, watching dawn break and then the game itself, followed by a hearty breakfast with his friends. There is only one precaution he has to take: He should not disturb his wife Shaila’s sleep at 4 am when he gets ready for the game.

He shares his love for golf with the company he heads. At a local level, JCB India sponsors the ‘JCB-Faridabad Industries Association’ rolling golf trophy. This annual tournament was started five years ago, and the proceeds are donated to various charitable organisations.

Sondhi does not collect golf memorabilia. He’s determined to play and improve his game for as long as he can. “People have played into their 90s… it’s possible.”

Golf: The course of friendship
Image: Joshua Navalkar

Ajay Srinivasan
Chief executive, financial services, Aditya Birla Group

Ajay Srinivasan’s central Mumbai office is a good indication of what the chief executive, financial services, Aditya Birla Group is most passionate about, apart from work. The tastefully designed cabin has framed photographs of him with cricket star Sachin Tendulkar and American professional golfer Tiger Woods. It’s evident that the 52-year-old has two ‘sporting’ loves: Cricket and golf.

Srinivasan used to play cricket regularly till 2005. “I would end up with aches and sore muscles. I guess age was catching up with me,” he says with a wry chuckle.

That was when he took up golf; he was based out of Hong Kong at the time. “Golf was easily accessible there, and I thought it was something that would keep me occupied for many years to come, without taking a toll on my health.”

He plays the game at least four times a month, and would like to increase the frequency to two to three times a week. “It is my biggest stress reliever, and has a calming effect on me. It requires phenomenal concentration,” he says.

In Mumbai, where he currently resides, he frequents The Willingdon Sports Club, but his favourite haunt is Nirwana Bali Golf Club in Indonesia. It abuts the ocean and is one of the most beautiful golfing grounds in the world.

“My love for the game keeps me going,” says Srinivasan, who even enrolled in a four-day golf training programme in the US two years ago. And while he’s willing to work on his game, he does not encourage unsolicited tips or advice. “There have been situations when I didn’t enjoy the game at all and three hours at the course seemed too long.” That almost always happened when he tried to change his style of playing on somebody’s suggestion.

While on the course, he gives himself half-an-hour to warm up before getting into the game. He is constantly competing with himself, and ups the bar at every stage. “[This competitiveness] is common for me. I set my own standards, I want to do things differently,” he says. It is a philosophy he follows even when he leaves the golf course.
Srinivasan likes to collect tees and hats. His most cherished souvenir is a tee that got chipped after Tiger Woods took a shot. This was in 2012 at a tournament in the US, when Srinivasan had an opportunity to walk with Woods on the golf course.

Golf: The course of friendship
Aluri Srinivasa Rao
Managing director, private equity, Morgan Stanley, India

Until five years ago, Aluri Srinivasa Rao was convinced that golf was a waste of time. Today, he sings a different tune. “It satisfies your soul; it may frustrate your mind, though,” says the Hyderabad-based managing director, private equity at Morgan Stanley, India.
What changed his opinion of the game was a meeting with a promoter of a company who was trying to fix an appointment with him to discuss a fund-raising plan. The promoter, who was a golfing enthusiast, suggested they meet at a golf course in Hyderabad, right next to Rao’s house. When the 50-year-old managing director tried his hand at the game for the very first time at the meeting, he ended up playing rather well. And while he did not invest in the company, he found himself intrigued by golf. He realised that he had a knack for it. “I gave it a little more time, and within a year, fell completely in love with it,” says Rao. He was in his mid-40s at the time.

Since then, he has been playing the game every week and has won 30 local tournaments including The Times of India Leaders Challenge Tour’s 18-24 handicap category in 2012. He has six apartments across the country, all next to golf courses. “There are very few games where you play for yourself,” he says and golf is one of them.

He may be a latecomer, but he’s making up for lost time. Rao travels every fortnight for work, but ensures that he fits in at least one round on the course in his schedule. For now, he feels that work and golf are enough to keep him going, although his wife, while supportive, often reminds him that there is more to life.

Like many of his colleagues, he also values the game for the friendships he has built. It is an unexpected gift. “It’s very difficult to make friends as you grow older,” says Rao, who has a dedicated set of 40 to 50 friends, who travel the world to play golf.

Rao likes all things related to the game, be they apparel or equipment, and collects them as mementos. He has about a hundred golfing T-shirts, 15 pairs of shoes and 50 caps. (It would have been a hundred caps, but he recently donated 50 to a charitable organisation.)

(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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