Busy days are in the offing for Nepali golfers as three major golf tournaments get underway in November. These are the Surya Nepal Western Open in Pokhara, the Surya Nepal Eastern Open in Dharan, and the Surya Nepal Masters. The last is a prestigious tournament which will see Nepali golfers compete with some of the best from India and elsewhere from South Asia for the top spot.
Surya Nepal Masters has its roots in 1993 when in began as the Surya Nepal Invitation Open Golf Championship. Renamed Surya Nepal Masters in 1999, its venue too was shifted from the Royal Nepal Golf Club (near the airport) to Gokarna Golf Club, the only 18-hole course in Nepal. The competition is slowly putting Nepal on the map of the golfing world. It is the only international-class golf tournament of the country and is recognised by the Professional Golfers Association of India (PGAI), which has included it in its official tour.
The tournament, organised by Surya Tobacco Company (STC), has grown in stature by the year. Not only has the number of players increased, the prize money too has gone up annually. Compared to the Rs 800,000 in 1999, this year the total purse is Rs 1.2 million (the champion will take home Rs 195,000), making it the biggest in Nepal and comparable to most tournaments in the Indian circuit.
Around 100 professional golfers from Nepal and other South Asian countries are expected to take part in the Surya Nepal Masters to be held 22-25 November. "We are hopeful that 16 Nepali and 80 top Indian professionals will be in the fray", says Binod Thapa, marketing manager of STC. In 1999, there were 15 Nepali and 70 Indian professionals taking part. Rohtas Singh of India finished with 2 under 142 and won the first Surya Nepal Masters, while Feroz Ali and Harmeet Kahlon (both of India) were tied at second place.
The Nepali pro Ramesh Nagarkoti stood at the eighth place with 145. Among the amateurs, Nepali golfer Rajan Thapa took the title. But before the Masters, STC will be organising the second Surya Nepal Western Open at Pokhara's Himalayan Golf Course even as it inaugurates the Surya Nepal Eastern Open at Dharan Golf Club. The two tourneys, which carry prizes totalling Rs 50,000 each, is open only to Nepali professionals and amateurs. Says Thapa of STC, the tournaments outside Kathmandu is to provide a platform to aspiring golfers and also to promote the sport. Though golf is still known as a game of the elite in Nepal and participation is still mainly restricted to the well-heeled and the expats, trends are changing. The number of players has gone up to 400 from just a hundred a decade ago. A number of exciting players such as Deepak Acharya, Ramesh Nagarkoti, Radheshyam Thapa, Rajan Thapa, Yelambar Adhikari, Deepak Neupane and Toran Shahi have emerged in the national scene. However, no Nepali has won a professional tournament so far. The best performance till now was in the 1996 edition of the Surya Championship when caddie-turned-player Deepak Thapa Magar stood second. In the amateur section, Deepak Acharya created a sensation when he won the title in 1995 and successfully defended it the next year.
With more and more golf courses coming up every year, Nepal can easily be promoted as a golf tourism destination. Tournaments like Surya Nepal Masters can provide the initial impetus. As STC's Thapa says, "We want to link golf with tourism. That was the reason behind organising tournaments at major tourist spots outside Kathmandu. Not only does it encourage domestic professionals but it also helps the tourism industry."