Inspiring journey to the summit

RAGS TO RICHES: C Muniyappa overcame adversity to bring home India’s top golfing prize. dh photo/  Srikanta sharma r

Rags to riches stories, on most occasions, offer inspirational insights, and this one is no different. Chinnaswamy Muniyappa has traversed the long and hard path from being a caddie at the Karnataka Golf Association to triumphing in magnificent fashion at the Indian Open – the country’s most prestigious golf tournament.

From hitting a golf ball with a wooden branch to playing for a tiffin box as the prize and fearful of speaking in public, the Bangalore pro has journeyed a path very few would have imagined. The 32-year-old professes that the $1.25 million he pocketed at Gurgaon is something he had never even imagined in his wildest dreams.

“Even now, I can’t believe this is mine,” says Muniyappa, holding the Indian Open trophy with great pride at the same place which he calls his second home, the KGA, and where he started caddying as a seven-year-old. “Trophies were not meant for me. From carrying golf CARTS to an accomplishment of this magnitude, the feeling is surreal. Rather than feeling proud, I am happy that I was able to justify the trust my family and friends at KGA had in me. This victory is for them.”

Unable to meet their day-to-day needs, Muniyappa’s parents moved from Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu to Bangalore almost 27 years ago seeking greener pastures. After finding themselves a much-needed job at the KGA, Muniyappa too was asked to follow suit to support the rest of the family that included two brothers and a sister.

“Initially, it was difficult. I couldn’t go to school and enjoy life like most seven-year-olds would have. But the problems at home were far bigger. The only concern for all us was food, nothing else mattered. Although I earned only one rupee a day, it was big. But now, I believe all that was a blessing in disguise,” explains Muniyappa. Muniyappa, who not only saved his Asian Tour card but guaranteed his place for the next two seasons with his Indian Open success, first struck a golf ball with a wooden branch. Noticing the kid’s interest, Shreepad Renu gifted the shy boy a 2-iron and a 7-iron club. A few other caddies were also given away clubs by generous members. “With the assorted collection, we caddies decided to have a competition of our own. We would play for tiffin boxes, soft drinks and stuff like that,” recalls Muniyappa, pointing to the fourth-hole tee where it all started.

After spending five years on the greens, Muniyappa was in for a shock. His parents asked him to work inside the Clubhouse for better pay. Unwillingly, the 12-year-old accepted, but soon forced himself back on to the course realising that was where his heart belonged.

In 1995, the KGA hosted a tournament in which four caddies were allowed to participate. Watching them play, Muniyappa’s interest in the game grew and the youngster started to take up the sport with all seriousness. The very next year, KGA hosted a pro tournament and Muniyappa, yet to feature in any tourney, made an audacious bid for one of the four reserved spots. It took him some convincing before course in-charge Keelpadi granted the youngster’s wish. “I had never even played even a 9-hole course, let alone a full 18. It was just the confidence that I could do it. With no obvious practise, I shot way over the cut. It was embarrassing but Keelpadi sir’s words ‘One day, you can play better’ instilled belief in me. Those words, I must admit, have been instrumental in my growth,” says Muniyappa, his voice choking with emotion.

Oozing confidence following those words of encouragement, Muniyappa decided to turn pro in 1997 and passed the Qualifying school in Chennai the same year in his first attempt. Lacking consistency, South India’s only India Open winner went through a miserable early phase. He missed cuts in most tournaments and struggled to retain his card. His reliable source of income still remained as a caddie, a role he continued to perform on non-tournament days.

At the turn of the century, Muniyappa’s game improved and in two years, he quit caddying to concentrate solely on his career. The move paid off and he joined the title contenders more often than not during weekend play. Just when things were beginning to appear brighter, Muniyappa suffered a shattering 2007.

First was the loss of his close friend S Madaiah, and then an appendicitis operation. “These two incidents really pulled things back for me,” he reveals. “Following the surgery, doctors advised me six months’ rest but I took to the greens in three months and finished eighth at a tournament in KGA.”

His breakthrough arrived in 2008 when Muniyappa tasted his first success as a pro, clinching the Toyota Altis Open at the Eagleton Golf Resort following which he decided to hit the Asian Tour. But why did it take 12 years for a man with wonderful green-reading skills to win a title?

“On most occasions, I would enter the final round three of or four strokes off the pace. But the fear of speaking on the microphone had I won would send shivers down my spine. I didn’t know much English and the pressure would get better of me. But I am slowly developing my communication skills, and my mental strength too has improved,” Muniyappa points out.

Despite his gritty climb to the ranks, Muniyappa wishes to downplay his achievements and says he needs to do a lot more to be considered a star. “One success alone won’t determine how good you are,” he reasons.” Look at Jeev Milkha Singh. Even after winning so much, his intensity and passion is still fresh. People have lifted me the pinnacle but I realise where I came from. I want to achieve more and there is still one dream pending – to play with my hero Tiger Woods.”

With a secure card, good bank balance, improvements to his game and renewed confidence, Muniyappa would appear on course to realising the one unfulfilled dream, a shot at the Tiger himself!

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