For the longest time, it was the highest golf course in the world: The Fire and Fury GC, laid out on a sweeping tract of land that sloped down from the hills to the south of Leh town, was also as unique a golf course as has ever been built. Visitors flying in to Leh would see the course as the airplane began its descent, but probably didn’t identify it as one: the Fire and Fury GC didn’t really fit the bill.
No verdant green spaces—the greens were made using compacted sand, and no visible hazards. And yet, stretching over 7031 yards from the tips, this obscure, unheralded, golf course had a superlative claim to fame: at 11,302 feet above sea level, it was, literally heads and shoulders above any other layout in the world.
That was before the calamitous flash floods hit Leh in 2010, and destroyed numerous settlements in proximity of the course, including the Tibetan settlement of Choglamsar. The massive relief efforts by the military that followed faced a major challenge: setting up temporary encampments for survivors and people displaced by the catastrophe.
The level fairways of Fire & Fury GC were perfect and were quickly repurposed to set up a relief camp. And so it came to pass, that 43 years after coming into existence, the course became unplayable. That year I wrote an epitaph to the course, that, for all practical purposes had ceased to exist.
Last week I got a call from a friend in Leh who happened to mention that he’d seen players pulling their golf bag trolleys on the brown fairways again and the erstwhile clubhouse, the only remnant of the course which the military had let stand for posterity’s sake, appeared to have got a fresh coat of paint. It’s a fair conjecture, he said, that the course has reopened for play.
I was immediately reminded of the last time I played there in 2008. For the highest GC in the world, conjuring up visions of precipitous slopes and undulating fairways, the Fire & Fury GC was surprisingly expansive and level.
The 18 holes were spread in a vast basin area on the edge of Leh Town. The best view was from the airplane on the steep descent into Leh valley: it appeared as a faintly barricaded brown landscape punctuated by dark brown spots with the Stok Kangri Mountain looming in the distance; you would’ve missed it unless you were looking for it. One thing is certain: the Leh Golf Course was not pretty; no creeks or willows.
But it was singular; high speed winds routinely lashed the basin in which the course had been built, the fairways were barren which meant your caddy had to lug a piece of Astroturf. The golfers I saw were using a regular foot mat: pop the ball on the high tuft at the corner and sweep away. The greens, appropriately called ‘browns,’ were kept soft with used engine oil; there was no slope though, once you got a measure of the speed then putting was pretty much sorted out.
The board and plaque which stood in front of the clubhouse proclaimed that the course was established in 1967 as the ‘Trishul Golf Course’ (later rechristened ‘Fire & Fury,’ by the military). There were no trees or any hazards besides the odd bunker; the entire exercise of getting the ball to stop was challenge enough! The army had planted hundreds of poplar saplings; most would not make it through the harsh winter months but the few that did have added much needed foliage.
I recall playing with borrowed blades and making a complete mess of things but you wouldn’t have thought that if you saw the ball go. It rose, albeit a bit late, straight down tiger line before flying inordinate distances. The air is thin in Leh and that is most apparent when you gauge the added yardage to your clubs. It also negates sidespin which meant you could pretty much hit it straight most of the time; the check ball didn’t exist here, you had to make sure you flopped it high so it landed softly on the heavily oiled browns. This was an optimist’s course!
The Fire & Fury GC fit right into Leh’s surreal landscape and melded in with the almost lunar topography. While it’s pretty certain that this course never got golf tourists, there was a certain posterity value to playing at the highest golf course in the world. Not to mention the once in a lifetime pleasure of pasting a driver 400 yards!
If the course has indeed re-opened for play, then one would hope that the army lets people from the ‘civvy street’, tee it up. The money could be used for upkeep of the course and perhaps even attract golf tourists to Leh. Pretty championship courses are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, but the bragging rights of playing at Leh’s rugged layout are in a different league altogether.
It may not be the highest golf course in the world anymore (that would be the Indian Army’s layout at Kupup in Sikkim), but there are still no parallels to match this course against that I can think of.
(A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game)