The eastern star

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Published: December 21, 2014 12:23:53 AM

Kolkata’s tryst with golf harks back to the time when the game was played in plus fours and with hickory shafted clubs

On a balmy morning in February 1965, a nervous Indian amateur golfer took the first tee on the final day of the Indian Open. PG ‘Billoo’ Sethi, the leading Indian amateur of the day, certainly had his work cut out for him. After starting the Open with a couple of fantastic rounds that put him ten-under-par, Sethi had let the nerves get to him on the penultimate day and now stood only four shots clear of a stellar field, which included the likes of defending champion and golfing legend Peter Thomson. As it turned out, Sethi, relying on his intimate knowledge of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) and specifically how to avoid the course’s 23 water bodies, won with seven shots to spare and created history by becoming the first Indian to win the National Open.

And there couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue for his feat. The (then) par 73 RCGC, fondly referred to as ‘Royal’, is the crucible of Indian golf, well-known for being the oldest course in the world outside the British Isles and the first golf club in the country—established in 1829. In 1911, the club was honoured by King George V and Queen Mary, who conferred on it the title of ‘Royal’ to commemorate their visit to Kolkata. Much of the memorabilia connected with the history of the club is still preserved in the clubhouse.

Over the last few years, redesigning and upgradation have seen a steady improvement in the playing conditions. The distinctive features continue to be the strategically-located water tanks and natural water bodies. Greens at the RCGC are quite large by modern standards and their undulations are hard to discern when playing for the first time. Scoring well requires doing well on the par 4s and, therefore, solid and accurate mid- and long-iron play. For a taste of the quaint, visitors can try bowling on the club’s bowling green, which is popular with the members. The RCGC is essentially a golf club and maintains that character even while affording facilities for other sports like swimming and tennis.

The Tollygunge GC, or the ‘Garden course’ as it’s popularly known, is new only in comparison to its neighbour, the RCGC. Over a century-old, the 100-acre layout of the ‘Tolly’ GC is set right in the middle of urban Kolkata. In spite of its modest length, the GC is well armed with a number of water hazards and tight fairways. The greens are small and quick, forcing players to favour conservative play. A large water tank, built by an erstwhile prince, dominates the par 4, 325-yard 15th hole, while the toughest hole on the course, the 392-yard par 4 16th (called ‘pressure cooker’) is again guarded by a huge lateral water body. Playing the Tolly GC is a test of nerves and course management, and rarely rewarding for a player who tries to bash the ball into submission.

The Tollygunge Club is a complete club in a way, which most clubs confined for space can never be. Besides facilities for tennis, squash, swimming and horse riding, the club has every conceivable service a visitor could want, including a health club, salons, three restaurants and four bars. Well over 50 residential suites mean that visitors really have no reason to leave the club premises.

The West Bengal capital’s contribution to golf cannot be understated, as players who’ve weaned their skills on its golf courses have made a mark on the international golf scene. Starting with Arjun Atwal—the first Indian to break through and win on the USPGA Tour—to multiple Asian Tour-winner SSP Chowrasia—whose last win came as recently as last month when he took top honours at the Panasonic Open—and PGTI

Tour-winners Rahil Gangjee, Shankar Das and Raju Ali Mollah, there’s no dearth of top players who call Kolkata home.

The erstwhile capital and (historically) the home of golf in the country—the city of Kolkata—has made a dramatic comeback to the spotlight in the past few years, riding on the accomplishments of its home-grown heroes. But is there a second generation in the offing?

Neha Tripathi, the top lady pro, says there are plenty of talented caddies aiming to make the transition to the pro circuit. “Most importantly, I feel that both the RCGC and Tollygunge Club really support talented caddies. I see them practising and playing freely after the members have finished their games,” says the 19-year-old, who honed her skills at the Fort William GC (a military-run facility), also in Kolkata. It’s a sentiment that finds favour with Chowrasia, who never fails to mention the role the RCGC has played in his game’s development. “I am so indebted to the RCGC. They never stopped me from playing on the course (and) gave me a set of clubs… When they realised that I had talent, they supported me financially too,” said the Avantha Masters champion after enjoying the biggest win of his career in 2010.

Teaching pro Indrajit Bhalotia, who runs the ProTouch golf academies, acknowledges the support of the two clubs (Tolly and the RCGC), but insists that a lot more needs to be done. “The clubs are doing all they can, as is the Indian Golf Union, but the point is we need more golf courses and driving ranges. Our academies have over 250 kids enrolled and another couple of hundred at three schools where we run programmes. Where do we take all these kids?” Bhalotia asks, adding, “The RCGC and Tolly are old clubs, and after that we’ve only added a nine-hole layout at the maidan academy. Golf is growing in Kolkata, but right now, we only have 10% of the funds and the facilities that we need.”

Clearly, the city has the capability to produce world-class golfers, but until the infrastructure and playing facilities are ramped up, it’s likely to be a trickle when it could easily be a deluge.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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