Salman Akhtar was a happy man last Thursday. He had every reason to be. After all the 26-year-old from Lahore, who had recently turned professional, had just won the most lucrative prize on offer in Pakistan golf – a brand new vehicle which costs you around nine million rupees. And he won that prize from just one lucky shot – a hole-in-one – on the opening day of the UMA-CNS Open at the picturesque Karachi Golf Club.
But there was another man at KGC who was perhaps happier than even Salman. It was Akhtar Ali, Salman’s father.
Akhtar’s weather-beaten face lit up as Jaffar Hussain, our colleague from Geo News, interviewed his son. He was basking in his son’s glory and deservedly so. As Salman later told me, “It was all because of the years of hard work of my father that I’m standing here as a owner of this Fortuner.”
Akhtar, who played as a professional for decades before turning senior pro, has been the driving force behind his son’s professional career.
“I’ve been playing professional golf for almost forty years and am now happy to see my son as a pro. I’m really happy that he has been lucky enough, having scored a hole-in-one here in this tournament,” said Akhtar, who wanted the limelight to stay on his son. “It’s his day sir, I’m just here as his father,” Akhtar told me when I suggested that Jaffar should also interview him. Despite our insistence, Akhtar refused to be interviewed but he did agree to sit down for a chat.
It turned out to be an interesting chit-chat. Almost 20 years ago, Akhtar, then a leading professional on the national circuit, made a hole-in-one in a tournament in Quetta. So did he get rewarded with a car, too?
“No such luck,” he said with a big smile. “But I did win a 24-inch TV set. It was a big thing then. I still have it in my home in Lahore. It still works.”
Akhtar was thankful that his son’s ace came in the CNS Open – the most lucrative tournament on the national circuit. The tournament carries a prize basket of Rs8.1 million and comes with the additional incentive of a Toyota Fortuner for the first hole-in-one.
Tournaments like the CNS Open are one of the chief reasons why golf in Pakistan has certainly grown from being a third tier sport to one of the fastest growing games in the country. More and more players of all ages and categories are taking up the sport which was once considered to be the domain of the rich and powerful. New golf courses are being established. Players like Ahmad Baig and Hamza Amin are slowly but surely on the way to earning international acclaim.
“These are exciting times for Pakistan golf,” says Lt Gen Mian Hilal Hussain, President of the Pakistan Golf Federation (PGF). “The sport is growing and we are taking a variety of steps to take it to the next level,” he told ‘The News on Sunday.
Gen Hilal is heartened by the fact that young players like Ahmad Baig are beginning to making their presence felt as professionals.
A vastly-accomplished golfer, Lahore’s Ahmad won a series of junior and amateur titles including Faldo Series Asia, Qatar Amateur and Bangladesh Amateur Championship.
After his title-winning triumph in Dhaka, Gen Hilal used his discretionary powers as PGF president to award him Tour card which allowed Ahmad to turn professional. After a series of hits and misses, Ahmad finally announced his arrival on the professional tour with an emphatic victory in last month’s Sindh Open at the Arabian Sea Country Club. Ahmad’s win was like a much-needed shot in the arm for professional golf in Pakistan which for years has been dominated by the likes of Shabbir Iqbal, Muhammad Munir and Matloob Ahmed.
Ahmad is tipped to break their monopoly but as it transpired in the CJCSC Open at Karachi’s Defence Authority Country and Golf Club last week that it won’t be an easy task.
Stung by his failure to win a record sixth Sindh Open title, Shabbir bounced back with a vengeance to win the CJCSC Open with an enviable ease. It is believed to be his 171st national-level title (there is no data available to verify it). But the way Shabbir has been dominating the national professional scene, the figure could well be accurate.
The prize money in national golf has increased by leaps and bounds in recent times but the lion’s share of it had been going to top pros like Shabbir.
“Most of money was won by the top players which meant that the hard-working professionals in the second and third tier were getting little or no share from the prize purse,” says Gen Hilal.
To bridge that gap, Gen Hilal instructed the PGF to launch a development tour for such professionals. Aptly named as the Jinnah Development Tour, the project was successfully launched. One of its recent episodes took place at the Karachi’s Airmen Golf Club recently.
“The Jinnah Development Tour is providing our second and third tier professionals to earn their bread and better. It is helping them to stay involved in the game rather than leaving it,” he said.