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, are chasing down golf balls on horseback, clubs tucked neatly on the side-saddles. After teeing off from the Rambagh Palace grounds, the group is headed for Maharani’s farm in Durgapura, almost eight kilometres away. It’s not really about stroke-play, although hitting a long ball is a distinct advantage if you’re playing an 8,000-meter 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 has top-of-the-line golf carts, and the format is a more traditional 18 holes and 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 you’re 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 on the Rambagh Palace grounds. The fairways were, in her own words, “pretty rough and full of burrs which would stick in the player’s 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). 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 initial membership in 1944 was a princely sum of Rs 500 annually. A much-repeated anecdote about those days involves the Rajmata’s brother, the late Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who came to Jaipur during the monsoons one year only to be told that the course was unplayable. Piqued, the Maharaja is known to have remarked, “This club is more expensive than Gleneagles and for half the year the course is unplayable!”
RGC has seen major changes and restructuring over the years. The first hole itself, a straightforward 345-yarder, has changed locations no less than four times. Originally set next to the Lilypool wall, and then later at the northwest gates of the Rambagh Palace, it is currently just west of the clubhouse. The most striking part about the landscaping is the trees: there are over 40,000 of them. The greens are immaculately maintained, while the fairways are lush green.
That’s a bit of a surprise for someone like me who had made a natural sequence of association: Jaipur-desert-patchy grass-preferred lie. The eighth green which has been rebuilt to USGA hole affords a great view of the Mata Doongri Fort looming in the distance. The 11th and 12th greens are quick and 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 the par came down to 70. The front half is easier than the back nine, but it’s no walkover. The par three 13th sets off progressive dents in the scorecard. At over 167 yards from the back tees, it’s set to a perennial headwind. The 14th is the longest hole on the course, a par five 556-yarder which requires 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, five, four, combination which can blow the wind out of your sails.
The course’s challenging layout and its conditioning have not gone unnoticed. A number of professional and amateur events are routinely played reaffirming the course’s calibre: RGC is course enough to warrant a visit to the Jaipur entirely on its golfing merits. However, for most visitors, a round at the RGC will come on the back of a more expansive trip to the Pink City—you are just pleased to get any golf and end up playing a quality layout. It feels like such a windfall.
Jaipur conjures up visions of regal magnificence, of kings and dynasty, of tradition and honour. There is no dearth of reasons to visit the Pink City but, till recently, the Rambagh Golf Club wouldn’t have been on that list, obscured by the living history that the city represents. Probe a bit though and the course emerges as a newly polished gem, with a lot to sparkle about.