Golf safari is a great way to see India
A golf safari is a great way to see India, meet its people and understand its history. There are now over 250 golf courses.
Bombay (Mumbai) Presidency has a bunker which is an ex-elephant trapping pit. The club’s President’s Putter was first contested in 1828. The ladies play annually for The Monsoon Cup.
In Kashmir, at 2,700m, Gulmarg boasts the world’s highest grass course club. Agra has a nine-hole course, built in 1904. You can see the Taj Mahal from the sixth green. A round costs £10 and a caddie £3. You can also hire an uggawallah – ball spotter/retriever. He’ll jump over a fence to beer or bottle water and bravely try and save you a shot.
And maybe a leg.
A lot of rough in India can sometimes rustle and occasionally hiss and growl.
Crows and elephants can be a problem as well as cheetahs. And no golfer likes to play with one of them. At Delhi its peacocks. I counted 26 on one hole. As well as Moghul concubine tombs.
One of my favourite courses is Udhagamandlam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. British soldiers brought in Scot pines and gorse to create in Oocamund (Ooty – the queen of hill stations) their own downland Home Counties course over Wenlock Downs, named after a governor of Madras.
The 1842 Ooty Club (The Snooty Ooty) was the summer residence of the first governor-general of India. Like many golf clubs around India, it remains a time capsule of gracious colonialism and, as one old boy member told me, “a mausoleum for the living too”.
There are portraits of Churchill, Gandhi and the Queen, tiger skins on the polished teak floors, mounted ‘munjac’ heads and photos of ‘shakirs’ (tiger hunts) and Victorian ladies in bonnets and landaus and men in shorts and solar topis. It reeks of the Raj (Rule). Beginners are kindly asked not to use the Bridge Room. Shepherd’s pie and apple tart are the house specialities.
Snooker was allegedly invented in Ooty by Neville Chamberlain. Not the PM. But an army officer who came up with idea of coloured balls. No one knows why. Snooker was a derogatory name for military cadets.
Founded in 1829 and formerly called the Dum Dum Club (not because it was run by colonial idiots but because it was near the airport), Royal Calcutta is the oldest golf club in the world outside the UK. It received Royal status from King George V in 1911.
Shillong in Meghalaya was established in 1898 by British civil servants. It’s 40 miles from the world’s wettest place, Cherrepunji. At 594 yards, the sixth is the oldest longest hole in the country. I asked the caddie if it had a name.
“Extremely tiring,” he replied.
There are plenty of very good modern Johnny-Come-Latelies. Like Greg Norman’s Jaypee Greens in Noida, not far from Delhi airport. Pash India hosts the five-course annual Taj Mahal Trophy in March.
Assam is the largest tea-producing state in India which is the second biggest producer behind China. “The Land of Red Deer, Red Rivers and Blue Hills” near the frontier with China has five national parks, 20 wildlife sanctuaries, 700 tea estates or gardens, 20 golf courses and its own time zone.
Royal Calcutta is the oldest golf club in the world outside the UK. It received Royal status from King George V in 1911
But its historic golfing territory too. “When India fell into the rapacious clutches of the noxious imperialists under the East India Company everything changed,” laughed Surendra Pawas, the ‘chai bagan’ (manager) of Kellyden tea estate and Misa Polo and Golf Club, two hours from Guwahati. A round costs 600 rupees.
Boasting holes called Long John, Shady Green, Wet Landing and Thirsty, Misa is planted with jackfruit, mango trees, fruit olives, lemon grass, 17 types of bamboo and three types of coconut.
“The Britishers brought in their sugar tongs and sugar cubes, silver service, ginger pud, banana custard, cream of tomato soup, bridge, badminton, cricket, tennis, rugby, sailing, pianofortes, crank horned gramophones, booze and, of course, golf clubs.
“Although not polo. Hockey on horseback originated in Manipur – one of Assam’s seven sister states. Curiously, the tennis courts at Panitola were planted by the same person who laid the All-England Club at Wimbledon.”
The course has just been extended to 18 holes 6,300 yards by Sports Officer Jakir Hussein, who has won the Assam Open six times.
At 7,030 yards, Kaziranga (2011) is the toughest course in Assam. It has ‘water bodies’ as well as sand and grass bunkers. The erstwhile ‘coolies’ are an integral part of the course. They will often put a blanket down in the middle of the fairway and have a tea break.
Green fees at Kaziranga, with its ‘water bodies’ and sand and grass bunkers, are £4 on weekdays and £6 at the weekend. Caddies cost £2 for 18.
Assam is a neglected golfing region. The tea planters built themselves golf courses as treat to themselves. “To keep their minds off tea, cholera, dysentery, cobras and sex!” said Sid Chaliha, secretary of the Upper Assam Golf Association (formerly Lakhimur). He is a third-generation estate owner running Banamalie Teas in Dibrugarh. Nearby is Chabua, where Assam’s first tea garden was planted.
Assam Tourism has just launched a ‘Tee to Tea’ initiative. “We have some terrific courses, characterful clubhouses and great characters. One club plays for the Hopping Mad Cup. We have some great hole names like Hooker’s Waterloo, Pimple Wrinkle, Hornbills Haunt, Stairway To Heaven and Banana Fiasco.”
The best planters’ courses include the 6,100 yard Margherita in then Namdang tea estate. Fifty miles from the Myanmar border, it was named after the reigning consort by Italian railway engineers. Digboi (Dig! Boy!) opened after the discovery of oil in 1910. It borders the Deihing Forest Reserve and has the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh as backdrop.
The Doom Dooma Club (established as the Plateau Golf Club in 1922) is in the Samdung tea garden. Dibrugarh & District Planters Club Golf Club, Zaloni, Tingri, Naharkatia, Thakurbari and Moran in the Thowa tea estates are other fun and historic Assamese parkland courses.
At the Dubrugarh Clubhouse I was tempted with the world’s hottest chili. Bhoot Jholokia is only grown in northeast India. The bhut ghost pepper is hotter than the Carolina Reaper and Nagaland Viper chili. It is smeared as a paste on fences to deter elephants. It’s also used by the Indian Army and police. Golfing in Assam, barking deer, crows and egrets can be a problem as well as elephants and the occasional cheetah. And no golfer wants to play with one of those. You have to learn to keep your head done and focus.
After Royal Calcutta (1829) Jorhat Gymkhana (meaning ball court) Club is the world’s second oldest golf club outside of the UK. It was founded by J. Huttman, the superintendent of the Jorhaut Tea Company in 1876. Every February, it hosts the Jorhat Races and Governor’s Cup. Nehru gave a speech there. The first plane touched down on the parade ground of the Assam Light Infantry Parade. It was picking up the sick wife of an “up country administrator”. Club Road was the first asphalt road in northeast India.
The club is now rather shabby but still hosts cricket matches and tennis tournaments.
Amoto has been the barman for 56 years. And invented the club’s signature cocktail Ladies’ Fire. (one peg vodka, one peg lemon quash, four drops Tabasco, four drops Worcestershire Sauce, salt and pepper and soda)
“In the good old days we had weekly film shows, sports days, glamorous dances and high society parties. And much fun. Drinking was a rational activity.”
A dusty cabinet showcases a 1931 menu offering chicken in aspic, salmon or Jungle Fowl. As well as brandy, cider and champagne. The oldest tournament is for the 2.5kg silver Begg Dunlop Cup dating to 1902.
Secretary Nagesh Singh told me: “We are seeking Unesco status not only for the club but also our billiards table.”
He signalled to one of his staff and did something with his eyes. The gentleman disappeared, quickly reappeared, held out his balls and asked me how old I thought they were.
I didn’t want to insult him and said, “About a hundred?”
He smiled his betel-stained smile, executed a textbook Indian head wobble and said they were 140 years old. “I’m very proud of them.”
Kevin Pilley flew to Assam with Jet Airways, which flies daily to Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata with connections to Guwahati (www.jetairways.com; www.pashindia.com offers golf holidays around India and organises the annual Taj Mahal Trophy around Delhi).