Fit for a queen

Written by meraj shah | Updated: May 11 2014, 06:13am hrs
Circa 1940. Swirls of dust rise up in circles and come to rest long after the horsemen have passed. A motley group of golfers, led by Maharani Gayatri Devi, chase down golf balls on horseback, clubs tucked neatly on side-saddles. After teeing off from Rambagh Palace grounds, the group heads for the Maharanis farm in Durgapura, almost 8 km away. Its not really about strokeplay, although hitting a long ball is a distinct advantage if youre playing an 8,000-m hole, and especially if hitting every shot involves dismounting from your steed.

Finally, one of the courtiers is the first to reach the designated spot and hits his ball through the door of a small structure at Durgapura. With a cry of exultation, he claims his prize as the winner of the cross-country Philips Trophy.

Cut to the present. The Rambagh Golf Club (RGC) has top-of-the-line golf carts, even though the horses are still around; the stables sit between the seventh and eighth fairways. The format is a more traditional 18 holes (par 70), and the desert has receded from the course, replaced by lush green Bermuda hybrid grass. At just over 6,300 yards, the RGC is a relatively short course, but if youre a history buff, it can take a long time to let it all seep in.

In October 1944, after returning from a visit to Gulmarg, where she caught the golf bug, the late Maharani Gayatri Devi got a nine-hole course laid out in the Rambagh Palace grounds. The fairways were, in her own words, pretty rough and full of burrs, which would stick in the players socks and shoes, but the browns were true and good.

As interest in the game grew in the city, the couple of fourballs became a score and, eventually, H Duckworth, a professional from Kolkata, was brought down to coach the new converts, including a young man by the name of Gul Mohammed, who had been hired as the club pro. The Maharani was elected captain for life (a post she held until her demise three years back). She had a gate constructed between Lily Pool (which served as her residence, adjoining the palace) and the golf course, so that she could have unfettered access to it. The gate and path leading from it still exist, although the entrance lies locked. My caddy Nazrat, another old-timer at the RGC, says the gate used to be unlocked till the time the Rajmata was alive. The initial membership in 1944 was a princely sum of R500 annually.

The RGC has seen major changes and restructuring over the years. The first hole, a straightforward 402-yarder, has changed locations no less than four times. Originally set next to the Lily Pool wall and then later at the north-west gates of the Rambagh Palace, it is currently just west of the clubhouse. The most striking part about the landscaping are the trees: there are over 40,000 of them.

The greens are immaculately maintained, while the fairways are lush green. Thats a bit of a surprise for someone like me who had made a natural sequence of association: Jaipurdesertpatchy grasspreferred lie. The current layout has been designed by long-serving secretary, Colonel SS Hara, who also designed the NDA Kharakwasla layout and, partially, the army golf course in Mhow. A former services team captain, Hara nonchalantly drills in 30-footers while proudly showing me the eighth green, which has been rebuilt to United States Golf Association (USGA) specs. The hole affords a great view of the Mata Doongri Fort looming in the distance. When we first rebuilt the course in the early 1990s, we didnt have much money and the greens were just put together using whatever resources we had. Later, we started stripping and rebuilding them to USGA standards, says Hara, taking me around.

The recently redone 11th and 12th greens are quick, true and deceptive. They are also very large in the fashion of modern courses. In 1998, the adjoining polo ground, on which the 10th, 15th and 16th holes were built, was taken back by the royal family. The course was completely restructured and par came down to 70. The front-half is easier than the back nine, but its no walkover. The par three 13th sets off progressive dents in the scorecard: at over 185 yards from the back tees, its set to a perennial headwind and even a violently-struck 5-iron is not enough to get me on the green. The 14th is the longest hole on the course, a par-five, 578-yard monster, which requires the golfer to execute a high, tree-clearing, fairway wood after a good drive.

The knockout punch comes on the home stretch from the 16th to the 18th, a par three, par four and par five combination, which can blow the wind out of your sails. The courses challenging layout and conditioning have not gone unnoticed with it becoming a fixture on the amateur and pro circuits. Tee-offs in the afternoon begin at 3.30 pm everyday

The first fairway doubles up as a practice area, where a wizened 85-year-old Gul Mohammed can still be found teaching juniors. With his caddying days far behind him, thin and lanky Mohammed is a link to a bygone era. His eyes glow bright and a faint smile lights up his face when you ask about the time when, half a century back, the course was under royal patronage. Those were the days, he trails off.

Arriving at the 19th hole is perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Step inside and the lounge is top-notch. The changing rooms even better, with a gym and snazzy shower cubicles. The club is bristling with activity even in the summer, but winter really is the time to visit.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game