Passage to India

Although it’s home to the oldest golf course outside the British Isles, India doesn’t have any golf culture to speak of. But that could already be changing, thanks to a burgeoning economy and an increasingly prosperous middle class.

Bert Schumann has been in India for a week. A native of Boone County, Va., he is traveling with his wife, Nancy, and is now standing in line to check in for a flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu, Nepal. Nancy looks flustered as she searches for the couple’s travel documents, which she swears she placed in the small black backpack that same morning (but which eventually would show up in the larger red one). Bert isn’t exactly helping, meanwhile. Looking a little dazed and confused, he stands immobile while Nancy sweats. “He’s been like that since the moment we arrived,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Barely said a word all week.”

It’s not surprising India has done that to this unsuspecting retiree from rural Virginia, dragged along on a mystery tour of Asia which, one suspects, he never really agreed to and which he evidently regards as less than magical. 

The quiet country roads and sparsely populated towns to which Bert has no doubt grown accustomed during his 60+ years bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to the total bedlam of India’s capital city. The two scenarios are literally half a world apart, but could just as easily be separated by a universe or two. No matter how many Bollywood movies your exotic friends have taken you to see or National Geographic articles on the problem of overpopulation you’ve read, nothing can prepare you adequately for your first encounter with one of India’s urban centers. The sheer number of people—27 million in greater Delhi at the last count, 19 million or thereabouts in Mumbai, 14 million in Kolkata give or take—the constant wail of car horns and the near insufferable heat can certainly take their toll on the uninitiated. The sight of livestock—cows mainly, but also the occasional goat or chicken—roaming freely on the streets is a bit of an eye-opener, too.

“Incredible India,” says the government’s global marketing campaign, and, taken literally, will seem like a wholly appropriate slogan to westerners visiting the subcontinent for the first time and catching their first glimpse of 100 people hanging on for dear life to the outside of a train as it rattles through the Delhi suburbs or watching Hindu priests perform the Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire) on the Dashashwamedh Ghat (steps) leading down to the Ganges in the ancient city of Varanasi.

They’ll probably squirm at the sight of forlorn beggars lining the streets outside luxury hotels the equal of anything in Beverly Hills or Midtown Manhattan. They’ll grip the seat, close their eyes and hope the deity whose picture or figurine sits atop the dashboard or hangs from the rear-view mirror will somehow keep them safe as their taxi driver spies a small gap in the traffic and makes a dart for it, even if that means crossing the median and going up on two wheels. And they’ll feel exasperated as they politely refuse, for the 200th time that day, a persistent but honest man’s offer to carry their bags or shine their shoes in exchange for a few rupees.

To find some peace and quiet in the middle of all this commotion, the affluent and privileged head to Delhi Golf Club, where the worst of the din and pollution seems to be denied access along with the scores of people who thunder past the club’s red brick entrance on Lodhi Road, no doubt wondering what on Earth is happening on the other side.

Onlookers must have felt similarly curious 80 years ago when the original course was built. In 1911, George V of England decided to move India’s capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) back to Delhi, which had been the country’s financial and political center during the Mughal Empire (1649-1857). Following various delays, most notably that caused by World War I, the relocation didn’t actually occur until the late 1920s (and didn’t become official until India gained her independence in 1947) when architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was awarded the task of designing the new city. Clearly not a golfer, Lutyens insisted Delhi’s existing course, located in what is now the Central Vista Park and site of the All India War Memorial arch (India Gate), would have to go and a new site be found.

A committee was established to select the most viable option, with the chief of the horticultural department, a Scotsman and therefore a golfer, in the chair. Something of a keen digger, he thought it might be nice to lay out the course in an area where divot-chopping golfers and a bunker-building grounds staff might in time unearth a bevy of important artifacts.

After borrowing a couple of elephants from a friend and beginning his search at the impressive Humayun’s Tomb—a UNESCO World Heritage site and the first garden tomb in India—in Nizamuddin, he hacked his way through dense undergrowth and eventually fashioned a primitive layout bounded by the Barah Khamba and Lal Bangla mausoleums and the Lodhi Gardens, where he thought relics from the Pashtun Muslim dynasty would surely abound. Sadly, the chief dug up nothing but a few snakes and scorpions and died three years after becoming the club’s first captain, apparently a sad and broken man.

The end of World War II and India’s subsequent partition saw the number of people playing golf at the course drop to as low as 80—hardly enough to maintain it—so the government issued an ultimatum, saying a self-supporting club of 120 members must be established or the course would be closed.

A sufficient number was found, and the first official Delhi Golf Club subsequently formed in 1951. But with the city’s population growing fast and every available acre becoming ever more valuable, the course would soon have been devoured were it not for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who granted the club a 30-year lease with the proviso it trim its edges. (The land still belongs to the government and is administered by the Ministry of Urban Development. The present lease expires in 2020.) A number of holes therefore had to be re-laid, and then, in 1977, five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson was brought in to remodel the course on which he had won two of his three Indian Open titles.

Today Delhi Golf Club, with its 200+ species of trees and more than 300 species of birds, is a tranquil and verdant oasis, a million metaphorical miles from the mayhem outside its gates. For just $45, visitors from the United States can tee it up here and attempt to re-enact Stan Peach’s shot during the 1968 Indian Open when, bunkered short of what was then the 7th green, the Englishman thinned his explosion but watched as his ball ricocheted off the domed roof of the Barah Khamba and came to rest a couple of inches from the hole. After he tapped in for birdie, Peach’s lead grew to 6, but his game fell apart shortly afterward, allowing Japan’s Kenji Hosoishi to successfully defend his title. Whatever malevolent spirits call the Barah Khamba home clearly didn’t think much of Peach’s good fortune.    

Although its origins are perhaps bizarre, the Championship Course at Delhi Golf Club is hardly the oldest in India. That distinction belongs to Royal Calcutta Golf Club, which not only can boast having the oldest course in the country (it opened in 1829—47 years before Bangalore Golf Club), but the oldest in the world outside Britain.

Considering the British influence and Royal Calcutta’s long history, it’s a little surprising there aren’t more golf courses in India and that the game never formed a strong foothold there. No one seems quite sure exactly how many courses there are in India, but Chitaranjan Bakhshi, the PGA of India’s first secretary and treasurer (from 1989 to 1992) and now owner of Delhi-based PASH India, a golf tour operator, which Bakhshi claims is the only one of its kind in the country, estimates just 175 courses were affiliated with the Indian Golf Union 10 years ago.

Today, the figure is likely closer to 200, and the number of golfers in the country has risen to roughly 300,000—a number that surely will continue mushrooming in the coming years as India’s nascent golf industry takes hold. No, the number of courses or players will never approach those of the United States or United Kingdom. And the sport will never undermine cricket’s popularity (an Indian’s passion for cricket makes an Englishman’s love of soccer, a Canadian’s affinity for hockey and an American’s fondness for baseball or football look rather tame in comparison), but Indians are at least becoming familiar with the game, as two successful European Tour events held earlier this season—the European Tour’s first ever visits to India—surely testify.

That’s encouraging, certainly, but the situation might not be as rosy as the numbers seem to suggest. Instead of seeking to satisfy a nation’s growing interest in golf, the courses being built are a response to the rapidly growing middle class (expected to make up 16 percent of the population by 2012, according to a report that appeared in the February issue of Golf World) and its ability to finance a more upscale lifestyle. In short, India’s new courses are essentially being built to sell real estate, not provide little Gupta or young Anil with a place to learn the game.

In 2000, the Delhi Development Authority built (well, “built” is misleading—“cordoned off” would be closer to the truth) India’s first public course. Eight years on, it remains the country’s only municipally owned venue and thus the only place where approximately half a billion people can afford to play. “Indian developers know from looking at North American models that the best way to add value to real estate is by including golf courses in their projects,” says Bakhshi. “The resulting promotion of golf is welcome, of course, but really only incidental.”

Jaypee Greens in Greater Noida (an acronym for New Okhla Industrial Development Authority), a fast-emerging new city across the Yamuna River from New Delhi, is a good example. A superb Greg Norman design that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida or the Carolinas, perhaps, the course is part of a 452-acre development complete with town and estate homes, villas, commercial space, green areas, a resort with luxury cottages and a spa, and several high-rise towers with apartments more than 3,000 square feet in size, which are selling for well in excess of $1 million each. It’s a very ambitious and impressive project that includes what could very well be India’s best course as its main attraction. But hell will suffer a prolonged cold snap before your average Indian would be able to arrange a tee time here.

The same is true at DLF Golf and Country Club in Gurgaon, another of Delhi’s satellite cities that have grown from small farming communities into major corporate centers during the last 10 years or so. Venue for the Johnnie Walker Classic in March, DLF was designed by Arnold Palmer and, as the slightly intimidating entrance (the gates and driveway give the impression you are entering a palace, an embassy or some other important state building) and polo fields suggest, is reserved strictly for those who have struck real estate, software, telecommunications or outsourcing gold. The course is surrounded by floodlights to allow businessmen who work late the chance to get out for a few holes in the evening, and the clubhouse is an extraordinary piece of architecture. The amenities are numerous, and the lawn outside the swimming pool and tennis-court area is a wonderful place for members’ families to enjoy a spot of high tea at four o’clock. Everything about DLF Golf and Country Club is undoubtedly world-class, but, again, the chances for the average person getting so much as a glimpse of the place simply do not exist.

Another of India’s mega real-estate developers, the Royal Indian Raj International Corp. (RIRIC), which is actually registered in Nevada but accorded Overseas Corporate Body status (basically at least 60-percent-owned by non-resident Indians) by the Indian government, signed on Jack Nicklaus to design a course in the beautiful Nandi Hills outside Bangalore. Eventually, it will be part of a 1,200-acre city with 6,000 housing units, an equestrian center, numerous hotels, a vineyard (Indian wine is actually very palatable) and a 12-foot-high wall surrounding it all. Nicklaus, whose design company also created the excellent Classic Golf Resort near Delhi, visited the site in April during a world tour of his design projects and made numerous changes to the original routing, handing 40 acres back to the developer to use for housing. “The site reminds me of Colorado,” he said during the visit, “a little dry and rocky with some hills.”

Canadian Brad Ewart, a former Asian Tour cardholder and the chairman of Golf India, RIRIC’s golf division, expects to sign Nicklaus for four, maybe five, [more?] courses. “And we’ll have Nicklaus academies, driving ranges and urban golf schools,” he adds. “We’ll look to develop a wholesale division to bring golf merchandise into the country and then build retail outlets. There will be a TV channel devoted entirely to golf, and we’ll also be involved in event management.”

India’s new golf courses may not be discovered by Scottish archaeology enthusiasts working with a couple of elephants anymore, but however unromantic the vision for many of its courses may be, there’s no doubt the great majority of them are very good. You may not go halfway around the world just to play them necessarily, but they’d be a welcome part of a trip to Delhi, the Pink City of Jaipur and Agra (where you’ll find the glorious Taj Mahal), which together form the Golden Triangle. By the fact that courses are hiring the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Norman, Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Royal Springs in Srinagar), Canadian Graham Cooke (Tarudhan Valley Golf Resort near Gurgaon and another Jaypee Greens course in Noida) and Englishman Martin Hawtree (Golden Greens outside Delhi), it’s clear that when it comes to golf, India very definitely means business.

And if by hiring dozens of young caddies these new courses can somehow offer the opportunity not only of employment but also the chance for youngsters to at least try the game, then so much the better. Who knows, in 20 or 30 years’ time, China’s top professionals might actually have some competition. “I haven't met any of the Indian players, but you obviously have some very good golfers,” said Nicklaus in Bangalore. “You have a lot of young people in this country, and awareness will come from the success of your top players. Then you have to provide them with good facilities. With so many youngsters and good golfing weather, the future of golf in India looks very good.”

Useful Web sites


PASH India offers a four-day side trip to Kathmandu, Nepal. If it’s within your budget and you don’t mind spending more time in the nightmarish Indira Gandhi International Airport (currently in the middle of a re-building and modernization project scheduled to be completed by the 2010 Commonwealth Games) or the equally frustrating Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, I highly recommend you take it.

You’ll stay at the wonderful Le Méridien in Gokarna Forest, a peaceful refuge in the Himalayan foothills (about 5,000 feet in elevation) a few miles from the city. The hotel has its own David McLay Kidd-designed golf course, which opened in 1999, just a few months after Kidd’s seminal Bandon Dunes debuted in Oregon. Kidd had the freedom to chop down just 10 acres of forest, so routing the holes must have been tricky; it’s no surprise one or two turned out a little quirky. The quirks just add to the charm, though, so overcome the summer heat, the very occasional cobra, krait or viper sighting (just stay well clear), and the mischievous groups of children who sometimes gather at the edge of the course and shout, “Bad shot!” when you slice one into the trees, and you’ll have an absolute blast.

There’s plenty of opportunity to play golf, but you’ll not want to miss the day of sightseeing, which takes in Bhaktapur, a ninth-century city; Kathmandu’s incredible Durbar Square (a World Heritage site); and the rather elaborate Buddhist site of Swayambhunath.

All information was accurate at the time of publication (July 2008).