‘In Xanadu…with walls and towers were girdled round, and there were gardens bright with sinuous rills. Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree, and here were forests ancient as the hills, enfolding sunny spots of greenery…’ —Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Perhaps it was a coincidence that I was reading the Romantic poets, specifically, Coleridge’s epic poem, Kubla Khan, the week before a friend and I teed it up at the Aamby Valley GC recently. Or perhaps it was too much of a coincidence: one tends to get superstitious about this kind of fortuitousness as one grows older.
On this occasion, my suspicion of some grand celestial design pulling levers was amplified because this has happened before: the last time, a few years back, when I first set eyes on this gorgeous layout in the middle of nowhere (more specifically, the Sahyadri range in the Western Ghats), I had been re-reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Then, I remember clearly, the manifestation of literary into literally had been too obvious to ignore. Much like Alice, I went down the rabbit hole and emerged, through the portal, into what seemed like this wonderland, an Eden of idyll, punctuated by one of the most stunning golf courses I had ever had the opportunity to play.
Okay, maybe there’s a bit of hyperbole there. I have played at a number of courses, in India and overseas, that will rival (and some will outdo) Aamby Valley GC’s natural splendour of location and overall layout. The difference, though, is that these highly-rated courses—whether it’s the spectacular Banyan GC in Hua Hin Thailand, or the Royal Springs GC in Srinagar—are well-regarded, much lauded, iconic layouts with waiting lists for tee times, and a plethora of players in the waiting for memberships, and casual rounds.
I wouldn’t say ‘hyped’ because, at least when it comes to the two courses I’ve mentioned here, the acclaim is well deserved; the point I’m trying to make is just that you’re aware of what to expect, as are the other legions of players making a beeline to these courses. On the other hand, nothing quite prepares you for Aamby Valley, even if you’ve been there before: a complete absence of commotion amplified by complete adherence to order when it comes to the way this satellite city is planned, and run, is almost unsettling for visitors like us who’ve escaped from the chaos of
Mumbai less than two hours back. The fantasy element, though, is singularly effected by the lack of crowds, and vehicles on the road. While there are indications of habitation all around, there’s no clamour. The most precise way to describe it, in fact, is like a lucid dream—that really is no hyperbole. But I digress: following a winding road that arcs up and down hillsides and over a bridge spanning a water body, we find ourselves at the Aamby Valley GC clubhouse, discreetly melding in with the landscape.
We walk into the driving range to warm up, the only players there, and the sound of clubface on ball seems to echo off the expansive fences, startling a few birds, which proceed to fly towards us to investigate. To be fair, it’s a weekday, and given Aamby Valley’s location, roughly two hours from Mumbai (and from Pune) does necessitate a day off work to play a round. We’re informed that weekends do see a fair number of fourballs some of which choose to play late into the night (the course is floodlit for night-golf).
And yet, the course doesn’t seem the least bit out of shape; the bunkers are freshly raked; the greens, while not cut down to tournament speeds are fast and true enough for weekend golfers. The caddies aren’t just there to ferry you about: players all, they’re experts at giving yardages and even approaches into the greens; the cafeteria still sends out some of the best sandwiches you can expect to have on a golf course. Precisely the kind of quality and service you’d expect from a course that was once named ‘course of the year’ by the PGTI and which has hosted Asian Tour and PGTI events.
The location is best appreciated from the par-3, 15th, the signature hole of the course that looks over a massive dam literally a few hundred feet drop from the tee. There’s a great vista of the back nine, laid out on a sloping forested patch abutting a deep valley and encircled by low rolling hills. Spread over 250 acres at an elevation of 2,700 feet, the course literally flows along the natural contours of the Sahyadri Ranges. The course, which was remodelled as a championship venue by PGA DC of Great Britain and Ireland, also has a PGA accredited golfing academy. And while it’s certainly not an easy layout to get about,
I would proffer that it’s an ideal venue to learn the game. Besides the fact that you’re not likely to be on the clock and sandwiched between groups, the tight layout places a natural emphasis on precision over length, imparting an invaluable lesson to beginners. On the whole, it’s a travesty that a golf course of this calibre doesn’t see more play. This column is no place to make political statements; and notwithstanding the uncertainty regarding Aamby Valley’s future, I’m just hoping that this course, a gem of a layout if there ever was one, is preserved, and open for play for the future generations that take to the game in India.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game