Two Mad Hatters drive into golf’s rabbit hole in the Western Ghats in a red car.
Unlike the Capital—where it’s perfectly acceptable to collect rent from inherited estates and live out your days in a stupor—Mumbai denizens scorn a life of leisure. And egregious displays—such as the one presented by two dishevelled middle-aged gents, silly grins pasted on their faces, donning wayfarers (undoubtedly to obviate evidence of nocturnal excess) and driving enthusiastically out of town in a bright red coupe on a Friday morning—grate on commuters’ sensibilities in that city. While the wheels of commerce continue to turn, the car and its two grizzled occupants are effecting an escape from the wash of work. In this car, on a gorgeous post-monsoon day, duty crumbles in face of wings—the former lies squashed between two golf bags in the back; the latter is in ascendance.
An efficient jailbreak from Bandra needs timing and patience: for us to get to Pune, we needed to hotfoot it at the crack of dawn, navigate west through Mumbai’s unending suburbia and slip on to the Pune Expressway just past Khopoli before the city wakes up. We’ve failed miserably, finally getting our act together at noon, and by the time we’re speeding along the excellent and uninspiring stretch of asphalt to Pune, it’s clear that we’re not going to honour our afternoon tee-time at the Oxford Golf & Country Club. But buoyed, as we are by our scintillating flight, two shiny happy people arrive at the club on the outskirts of the city. All golfers should own a red car. That just makes it easier, in Sam Snead’s words, to “…quit all that thinking!” Or take yourself and the game, or lack of it, seriously.
Oxford GC always makes for a grand sight; set in a bowl of an expansive valley in the Western Ghats, this resort’s location is absolutely stunning. We’re welcomed by enthusiastic strains of discordant karaoke emanating from the restaurant, while a spiffy groom and bride, with the endearing naiveté of eternal togetherness that only newlyweds possess, pose for posterity in the lawns. The irony is hard to miss: that lady will have plenty of time to vex on her man’s obsession with the game. And looking back on this day’s memories, she’ll rue—the signs were crystal clear.
These myriad guests who descend on the resort on the weekends lay their hats, as we do, in Oxford’s chalets, perched on a vantage point overlooking the layout. In-residence enables us to make an early morning beeline for the first tee from where we proceed to explore as much of the course’s 136-acre expanse as is possible without getting lynched by trailing groups. Only the Sahyadris, that isolate the course from three sides, prevent our magnificent display of tee-to rough from going further awry. With little to take away as a score, we pose for selfies at the fourth tee: the highest point of the golf course perched 84 meters above the 14th hole, which forms the floor (that gives an idea of the elevation changes here).
There’s no escaping failure in golf. Can we escape the lives that were chosen for us? That might well be the biggest reason people get obsessively hooked to the game: the four hours or so that it takes to finish a round, all other woes cease to exist—a failing that trumps all other. If there is such a thing as a psychological alternative reality in golf, then it’s amplified by the Alice-in-Wonderland-like magic realism of the Western Ghats Golf Club at Aamby Valley city. After the most scenic drive in these parts that leads up from Lonavala up to Aamby Valley, the red car goes down the rabbit hole and emerges, through the portal, into what seems like this wonderland, an Eden of idyll, punctuated by one of the most stunning golf courses we’ve seen.
Nothing quite prepares you for Aamby Valley Golf Club, even if you’ve been there before: a complete absence of groups of golfers waiting on the first tee of a course that miraculously appears to be in championship conditions. If you dream about golf, as most of us do, then this is pretty much how that would pan out. Golf’s primacy in our minds is instantly supplanted by a sense of awe and gratitude, for being here, on this day, at this time. Like a truant tyke clamouring for attention whose tantrums cease when ignored, the game comes back as mysteriously as it deserted us at Oxford GC. The signature hole—the absolutely stunning 167-yard par 3 15th—is a deceptively difficult stunner of a hole, with out-of-bounds lurking behind the green, and all along the left side of the fairway, and a low-lying trough short of the green. The par 4, 18th is a fitting culmination to the course’s visual appeal with sweeping views of the township and the spectacle of the sun setting over the Koraigad Fort in the distance remains the defining memory of the round.
You blink, and the set changes. In a high-rise apartment back in Mumbai, the weekend gone by appears not like a lucid dream, but like the fragment of one. You’re left with a moment, standing on the brink of that cliff on the 15th hole at Aamby Valley when time, life, everything, stood perfectly still. “How long is forever?” asks Alice. “Sometimes, just one second,” says White Rabbit.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game