The best greens

Whether you are a diehard golf junkie or a rookie, teeing-off at India's most unique golf courses with vast stretches of pristine green is something to die for.

Sharad Kohli | Print Edition: September 19, 2010

A game of golf just for the sake of it wouldn't be much fun. Unless you're the super-focussed, do-not-disturb sort, you need a diversion, a backdrop that takes your mind off a wretched round. Here, from around India (north, south, east and west), are 10 golf courses that offer experiences of a different kind. Take your pick from the bleak-but-beautiful moonscape of Leh to the impossibly laidback solitude of south Goa; from one in Delhi dotted with medieval burial places to another in Baroda dominated by a structure of dazzling Indian-baroque; courses with political associations (past and present) and ones where you can, literally, smell the coffee (and the tea). Ten good reasons, then, to tee it up and indulge in a bit of on-course 'sight' seeing. So pack that golf bag, and definitely don't forget the camera!

It does not get much greener than this. For a round well out of the ordinary, head to Assam, and the oil town of Digboi. The 18-hole golf course here, founded by the British in 1943, nestles amidst luxuriant tea gardens, and is fringed by the impenetrable forests of the Deihing reserve. It owes much of its quirks to the adjoining wilderness- it is not uncommon to espy wild animals on the fairways and greens (among them, elephants). The 'ravine' between tee and the green on the third hole (par-3) can spook golfers as it takes nearly 70 paces to descend from the tee and back up to the green. Reminders of World War II can still be seen here- by way of a runway, on part of the fifth fairway, and skeletons of antiaircraft pillboxes on the third hole. This is definitely one of India's golfing bests.

The Wellington Gymkhana is a splendid example of the shared links between golf and the Army. The Wellington Barracks, built in 1852, houses the headquarters of the Indian Defence Services Staff College (it's also the HQ of the Madras Regiment, the oldest in the Indian Army). At an altitude of approximately 6,000 feet, and set amidst the wooded beauty of the Nilgiris, this golf course is a sensory delight. Tea terraces abound, and there's a palliative whiff of the leaf in the air. On the 12th, the player farthest from the pin pays for a cuppa, which can be had just off the 13th fairway after teeing off.

The Gaekwad Baroda, located in the middle of Vadodara, can lay claim to having the most majestic setting of any golf course in the country. Here, the game cedes centre stage to the unthinkably opulent Laxmi Vilas Palace. At present, the layout has 10 holes (to be increased to 18), most of them commanding a view of the erstwhile seat of the Gaekwads. Back in 1930, H.H. Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad, the then ruler, fashioned a course on the 700-acre estate so that his European guests could amuse themselves. Since 1996, his grandson Samarjitsinh has been leading the redevelopment. Golf, in Vadodara, comes with 'royal' approval.

Even if you've had a very early tee-off, this place is guaranteed to keep you wide awake. A charmer of a golf course, the Golf 'Links' (a complete misnomer) is located in the prosperous coffee-growing district of Coorg, in the pretty Western Ghats. A bracing mug of coffee, then, is never far away. The golf course itself is intriguingly landscaped. Hilly ground greets you on the front nine, and low-lying terrain (the fairways were once paddy fields) on the back nine. With four golf courses in a radius of 30 km it is a golfer's paradise. If you get bored, you could just reach for that cup.

There's an almost primeval feel to Boulder Hills Golf and Country Club, one of the most recent additions to India's championship layout roster. Chiseled from a hill (2,100 feet), it's what golf might have looked like had pre-historic man teed it up. The boulders, some of which are as big as houses, give the golf course its character. These monoliths, some dizzily poised on one other, rim the fairways. Vertical stone walls surround a valley green on one hole; on another, an arresting umbrella-shaped block balances on a more humble rock to create an elongated shadow on the green. In the distance, to complete the picture, lie the formidable Golconda fort.

With its gradient 'swings', this is golf's variant of the cross-country run. The 18-hole Raj Bhawan layout, 1,932 metres above sea level, is 'short' on yards but 'long' on ascents and descents-your leg muscles will certainly get some serious exercise as you trudge up and down the hilly terrain (though the crisp air will make you forget all that cardiovascular exercise). The course is a mix of browns and greens, but more to the point-for the golfer on testosterone anyway-the ball is apt to fly further in the rarefied air. Built across hills by British Army engineers, the GC is located in the grounds of the Uttarakhand governor's official home. Raj Bhawan was formerly the summer residence of the governor of the North-West Province during the British Raj, and later became the summer retreat of the lieutenant-governor of the United Provinces.

The picturesque Jayachamaraja Wadiyar is one of two golf courses in India located within a race track (the other being the Madras Gymkhana, in Chennai). In fact, the golf 'course' is laid out both inside and around Mysore's race 'course', at the foot of the enchanting Chamundi hills. It was constructed a tad over a century ago (in 1906) by Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar, a maharajah who loved his sport. The GC gets its name from the last Maharaja of Mysore (1940-50), who inherited a love of games from his uncle, and devotedly looked after the sod. Both the race course and the golf club continue to be well frequented.

Is there a more delightful place to play the game than here, on the steeped-in-history turf of the popular Lodhi course? Tombs and mausolea charmingly dot the burial grounds of the Lodhis, and the aficionado of the medieval and Mughal eras may be interested in the monuments on the sixth fairway and the fourth green, as well as those on the 10th, 14th, 16th and 17th tees. There's also the Lal Bangla, a red-sandstone, late 18th century gateway overlooking the ninth tee. This contains the grave of one Lal Kunwar, a celebrated seductress whose djinn-like lures seem to have rubbed off on today's Lodhi. If some old hands are to be believed, your luck with the club might just depend on supernatural forces. And I haven't even mentioned the wildlife!

The Fire & Fury GC (baptised so by the Army) is an idiosyncratic piece of golfing terrain. At 11,302 feet, this is not the highest golf course in India (that honour belongs to another military-run facility, in Upper Sikkim), but with its lunar-like topography- barren fairways and 'browns' rather than greens (kept soft by used engine oil!)-F&F provides for a unique golfing encounter. The 18 holes here are spread out over 7,031 flat yards in an immense basin on the edge of Leh town. At this altitude, the air is, naturally, thinner, but the thrill of bombing your drive 400 yards more than compensates.

With her long coastline, it's a wonder that India has only one 'links' course, the gorgeous Golf Greens, located in Goa's less touristy south. The nine-hole golf course (which can be played as 18) is part of The LaLiT Goa Resort's sumptuous property, and has been designed to afford players as many seaward vistas as possible. You certainly do get a 'feel' of links golf here, what with the littoral humps and the big bunkers. The palms and Arabian Sea shimmer aside, there's much for the eyes to feast on (including the comfortingly verdant expanse of the Sahyadri range and the Talpone river). In a word: stunning.

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