For a taste of post-colonial golf, head to the quaint layouts in Madikeri
I have to admit that I’m taken aback. I have never received so much feedback (hate-mail is too strong a phrase, but you get the picture) from readers of this column as I have in the past week. For those who may not have had the good sense to read FE’s Sunday edition a fortnight back, that write-up featured a round-up of courses I played on my trip down south as 2015 drew to a close. I thought I’d done a pretty comprehensive job, given the limitations of this column: besides the bouquet of layouts in Bengaluru I managed to include courses in Chennai, Kodaikanal and Trivandrum. I also mentioned Coorg in passing and that, in retrospect, has turned out to be a case of typical ‘north Indian’ myopia (as golfers from that lovely oasis of coffee plantations, flowing grasslands and golf courses—a near-perfect blend of Kerala and the Nilgiri Hills if you like—have informed me).
So here’s the first step on my road to atonement. No self-respecting journalist can ignore charges of oversight and there’s also the more pragmatic matter of my wanting to play in Coorg again. I really don’t want to run the risk of landing up at the Coorg Golf Links and being thrown out for ungentlemanly behaviour, non-conforming clubs or shoe spikes, or something along those lines.
Unlike most of the layouts in Coorg, the 6173-yards Coorg Golf Links—located in Virajpet—is a relatively new development. Not surprisingly, by modern standards, it’s also the finest—course maintenance and facilities are top-notch. The course, in its current avatar, became playable only by 2000 and features a practise facility, full-fledged clubhouse and even an on-course resort. The 18 holes encompass both flat and hilly terrain, forcing players to recalibrate their playing strategy from one shot to another. The front nine is set along the ghat sections, with serious elevation changes (almost 200 m). There’s also a surfeit of water hazards, coffee plantations and out-of-bound areas that necessitate formulation of a course management strategy before teeing it up. The Ambatty Greens Golf Resort—a luxury 24-room property—is located on the golf course. Facilities include a pool, bar, spa and restaurant in addition to well-appointed rooms and suites.
While CGL is a fabulous course, to get a true feel of Coorg’s post-colonial golf legacy, the course to head to is Mercara Downs. Established by the British over a century ago in Madikeri, the capital region of Coorg, this parkland course offers golfers a links-style golfing experience—with wide-open fairways, rolling hills, and menacing bunkers. It’s evident that this is a ‘natural’ golf course that follows the lay of the land with very little landscaping carried out to create the course. Interestingly, locals believe that the course is the oldest in the country, but lack of supporting documentation means that a confirmed date of origin has not been established. There’s a newly constructed clubhouse that offers post-round repasts.
The quaintest of Coorg’s golf courses is the TATA Tea Golf Club—a private nine-hole facility owned and managed by the TATA group set amidst the company’s 20,000-acre coffee plantation. Access to this course can only be gotten through an employee of the company or by staying at one of the many bungalows around the course. And there’s no better way to get a genuine peek into the ‘planter’s life’ than to stay in one of these enormous Victorian bungalows, staffed with butlers (in white gloves et al) and enjoy Coorg’s delectable cuisine, weather and serenity. Besides the tea bungalows, the Taj Madikeri and Club Mahindra properties—located a stone’s throw away from Mercara Downs—are the best places to lay your hat in Coorg. Madikeri has a lovely, sleepy vibe and is ideal for a quiet golfing weekend. The easiest access is from Mangalore located 150 km away.
Since it’s now apparent to me that FE is widely read in the south, I can’t possibly risk running the gauntlet by not talking about two more spectacular layouts in that part of the country that deserve a mention. The Hyderabad Golf Course is visually spectacular not for its golfing pedigree, but rather its unique location: with fairways and greens juxtaposed between the ruins of the 400-year-old Golconda Fort—a protected monument. Unless you’ve been told, it’s impossible to tell that the land on which the course stands today was one of the city’s largest garbage dumps before the course was developed in 2001. Not only has that bio-hazard been nullified, but parts of the fort ruins have been restored and the course is irrigated entirely using recycled sewage. The course isn’t very long, but very much a precision-player’s layout and recently hosted a professional tour event. Extensive renovation in 2014 has added significant changes in elevation, new water hazards and slick greens. Tees have been moved closer to the walls of the Naya Qila and even perched on ramparts.
The Palakkad Pass—where the Western Ghats break for a few kilometres—is what creates the biggest challenge for golfers at the Coimbatore Golf Club; it’s also responsible for imparting the course its panoramic vistas. Constant gales sweep through the Pass; very few golf courses in the world make players deal with such consistently high wind speeds. The south-west and north-east monsoon dramatically affect the way each is played; almost like you were playing on two different courses. The greens have been the subject of admiration for long: this is one of those rare courses where you know if you have holed a putt or not, well before it actually reaches the hole. Coimbatore is very strategically located for someone looking to take a golfing holiday in the south of India. There are six golf courses located within less than 200 km from the city, each offering a completely unique golf and holiday experience.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game.