Golf goes back to the future


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Every golfer knows that the world's oldest courses are in Scotland, the home of the game. When the game began to spread beyond its original roots, it was typically expatriate Scots that brought golf with them to their new home. That's how the game first spread to England: when James Stewart, King James VI of Scots, became also James I of England, it seems certain that he, his courtiers or both brought clubs with them. Royal Blackheath, unquestionably England's oldest golf club, claims ancestry from this period – and will indeed celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2008 – although some historians of the game say the claim is impossible to verify.

Golf, though, did not take hold in England until the second half of the nineteenth century. The oldest course in England still in play is Royal North Devon, more commonly known as Westward Ho! – whose history dates from 1864. And by this date, golf was well-established, by Scots, in a much further-flung locale.

Indian golf dates back to 1829 and the foundation, by Scottish officers in the service of the British East India Company, of the Dum Dum Golfing Club (which, after a change of name and several of location, became the Royal Calcutta in 1911). Many golf clubs were founded during the nineteenth century in India, although play by Indians themselves was negligible until after independence. The Indian Golf Union, formed in 1955, has overseen a slow but steady growth of the game, admittedly among an elite of golfers. Now, though, as the Indian economy is transformed by rapid growth, with a huge emerging middle class between 200-300 million strong, golf is set for an explosion.

Because golf in India has, until now, been largely a sport of the elite, the country has been little affected by the development trends driving the game in the rest of the world. Only a few mixed golf and housing projects have been built, and there has been no real promotion of golfrelated tourism. According to figures generated by KPMG's Golf Benchmark Survey, which this year expanded to include India for the first time, of the country's 186 golf courses, more than half belong to the armed forces. Of those accessible to non-military players, memberships are typically very high, with an average of 1,300 members per 18-hole course. But 85 per cent of courses that responded to KPMG's survey reported positive expectations for the future.

The southern Indian city of Bangalore, capital of the province of Karnataka, is at the centre of this explosion.

With a population of 6.5 million (and growing, every day), Bangalore is India's third largest city, and the heart of the country's technology industry. Virtually every large IT company in the world has a presence in Bangalore, whether focusing on software development, call centre support or some other function. Because of its position high on the Deccan Plateau, around 3,000 feet above sea level, Bangalore is reckoned by many to have India's best climate: the temperature rarely rises much above 30 degrees Celsius, or falls below 12. The city also has India's second oldest golf club, Bangalore Golf Club (BGC), founded in 1876, and still located on its original site.

Renovated some years ago by Australian architect Phil Ryan of Pacific Coast Design – who has worked extensively in India – BGC is a fascinating study in the problems of old courses. The property, already incredibly small at little over 60 acres, and stuffed full of crossing holes and shared fairways that would give a modern safety consultant a heart attack, is in the process of becoming smaller still as the road down one side, which happens to lead to the city's new international airport – is widened. There is talk of building an elevated railway to the airport too, which would call for even more of the golf course's land – if that happens, the historic BGC course would surely have to be reduced to nine holes, or the site abandoned.

Aside from BGC, Bangalore's most prestigious golf club is the Karnataka Golf Association (KGA), whose course is located close to the existing airport on the east side of the city. The KGA course is undergoing a major renovation at the hands of British architect Howard Swan; holes nine to eighteen have been completed and are back in play, and the front side is currently under construction.

With around 3,000 members, of whom more than 2,000 are active golfers, the nine holes now in play at KGA are seeing heavy use, and the completion of the other half of the course cannot come too quickly. But it is a complicated project: the site is not large, and is low-lying – a particular problem given the amount of rain that can fall during the monsoon season.

Tree removal has been an important part of the KGA renovation plan. On such a small site, separation of holes is clearly an important priority, but seeing an aerial of the course from before the start of the project shows the extent to which trees had come to interfere with playing lines. Swan, his associate James Edwards, and project manager David Whitaker – together with the club's greenkeeping staff and a huge crew of local labourers – have overseen a major construction project, excavating a number of large lakes that are connected by pipes and designed to catch the water that would otherwise flood the entire property during monsoon season. The fill produced from these tanks, together with topsoil imported from a local site, has been used to raise the levels of fairways by up to two metres in places; a cap of sand across the entire property ensures good drainage.

The complexity of building golf courses in India is well illustrated by one issue faced by Swan and his team. At one side of the KGA course, next to the very narrow (and fenced) driving range, in fact, is an area of recently constructed housing, built entirely without official planning consent.

Water runoff from this site – often contaminated by sewage – pours into a narrow ditch at the side of the range. This is not too bad in the dry season; it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what will happen when the rains come. The only solution is to build a channel that can carry the water across the course – but the flat site means there is scarcely enough fall to allow gravity to take the water away.

This problem ought – given that the water is coming from off-site – to be one for the local authorities to fix, but the illegal nature of the housing means there is some doubt they will do so, leaving the golf project to take the strain.

The renovated KGA course will stretch well over 7,000 yards, and there are hopes of bringing the European Tour's Indian Masters to Bangalore in the future. If the professionals do visit, they will find a course that requires accurate driving and precise iron play: it may have been widened in the course of the renovation, but it remains tight. The tenth hole, for example, plays down the north edge of the property. Though the tree removal has clearly made the playing corridor more reasonable, it remains an intimidating drive, even more so during the renovation of the other nine, as it is the opening shot of the round.

The finishing holes are especially strong.

Number fifteen, a fine par three, has an especially well-designed green, with good bunkering around it and clever run-offs.

The sixteenth, a par five, offers the possibility of a shot to be gained, but water close the left side of the green will threaten the player who tries to get home in two.

And the eighteenth, from the championship tee especially, has an intimidating drive with a big carry over a lake. The front side, in construction when I visited, has more interesting holes, including that rarity, an interesting island green par three. Swan says he believes KGA will set new standards for Indian golf, in terms of quality of design, construction and greenkeeping, and the latter especially I can well believe: the young sward of Tifdwarf Bermuda grass is of exceptional standard.

Elsewhere in Karnataka, the game is growing apace. Aussie Phil Ryan, mentioned above, completed the area's first mixed golf and residential development, Eagleton, around 30km from Bangalore, in 1995; his firm has completed eight other projects in India and will open a new Bangalore development course entitled Clover Greens later this year. Golfplan, the design firm founded by veteran globetrotter Ron Fream, has a project near the town of Bangarpet, 70km east of Bangalore, soon to start construction. The 18-hole Champion Reef course is being developed alongside villas intended as second homes for Bangaloreans. "The site is beautiful and has distant hill views," says partner Kevin Ramsey.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the region, particularly for the potential visitor, is the area around the city of Mysore, just over 100km southwest of Bangalore. Mysore, formerly the capital of legendary ruler Tipu Sultan, who fought and beat British colonial forces on a number of occasions before his final defeat in 1799, is a beautiful city with tourist potential galore. Close to Mysore, a number of golf projects are ready to start construction. Harradine Golf, for example, expects shortly to start work on the Heritage development to the east of the city. "The site is an absolute gem," says Peter Harradine. "Meticulous planning has ensured that the magnificent environment has been enhanced and improved by laying the course in and among the existing features. The lush vegetation, rich soil, existing canals and various artificial lakes will ensure a superb layout. The rolling hills, mature landscape and natural features are an ideal setting for the 7,400 yard championship course, the nine hole executive course and the generous training facilities which include a spacious driving range. The course will undulate gently and meander through the mature trees, and will provide various strategic challenges and heroic opportunities. Bunkers will be fair without becoming soul destroying. Water hazards will be strategic and aesthetic and greens will not be tricky." And to the other side of the city, Howard Swan and his team are in the final stages of planning the Skytop Golf Resort, a huge development including golf, hotel and housing. Skytop's site, which is significantly undulating and works its way through trees, scrub and grassland, including some attractive rock outcrops, offers the potential to be a really first rate course – certainly Swan associate James Edwards, who has been working on the design along with his boss, is very excited about the possibilities.