During the brighter days of the British empire — that is, when there still was an empire — it was not uncommon for the colonizers to import a bit of the homeland to their outposts to make life away from home more bearable. Trout were introduced into the streams of New Zealand. Cricket was introduced in South Africa.
And golf was brought to India.
Thus it should come as no great surprise that the oldest golf club in the world outside of the British Isles hails from Calcutta; the Royal Calcutta Golf Club was established in 1829. (The oldest club, incidentally, is the Gentleman Golfers of Edinburgh, formed in 1744.) The current site of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, in the city’s Tollygunge district, made a strong impression on Rick Lipsey. “The atmosphere is amazing, certainly unlike any that I’ve experienced at any course of its distinction,” Rick said. “To reach the course, you drive through a portion of this terrible slum. You don’t feel as though it’s dangerous, but it certainly isn’t pretty. As you near the course, there’s a lake with cows eating garbage along the sides. It’s like the East River in New York during tougher times. But eventually you reach the course, and things get better. Calcutta — and, for that matter, India — is a land of great juxtapositions.”
The current incarnation of Royal Calcutta dates back to 1912. At 7,300 yards, and festooned with fifty-two natural water hazards, it’s a challenging track, and it’s been a perennial training ground for some of India’s finest players. Arjun Atwal, the only Indian national on the PGA Tour, had his start at Royal Calcutta. So did Simitri Mehra, the first professional golfer to hail from India. “The most wonderful memory I have from Royal Calcutta,” Simi said, “was when I won the All India Amateur Championship in 1994. It was thirty-six–hole match play and I brought back my opponent on the thirtieth hole. Soon after, I turned pro and joined the LPGA. I’ve always been extremely happy that I won this event on my most favorite course in India.” Simi started playing when she was fourteen; her brother Sanjeev, a jocular fellow who is a member at Royal Calcutta, began playing at age six. “My mother was playing the courses in Calcutta when she was pregnant with Simi and me,” he said. “Golf is our birthright!”
Sanjeev was eager to dispel the negative image that Calcutta sometimes suffers in the United States. “Calcutta gets a bad rap thanks to Mother Teresa and the lepers and all that baloney. Calcutta has over ten million people in a city originally planned for a hundred thousand by the British, so you can imagine what we have had to go through–it’s an infrastructure nightmare. But like any developing economy weighed down by corrupt individuals, we have organization through chaos. I want the media pundits in their offices in the states wondering whether Calcutta is civilized or not to know that we have Pizza Huts, and a McDonald’s is on the way. Two of the defining points for American civilization have arrived, so you can feel safe in Calcutta,” Sanjeev finished with a laugh.
The presence of franchise outposts may provide the wary American visitor a modicum of comfort, and the warm, convivial atmosphere of the Royal Calcutta clubhouse and its jolly members will make any traveler feel at home. Still, there are reminders here and there that you’re not at the local muni. “The course is routed through the last remaining swatch of what was once a vast jungle,” Rick noted. “There are cobras in some of the deeper patches of rough, and wild jackals also call the course home. In fact, a sign bears the legend, ‘Beware of the jackals.’ There’s a green on one par five that’s abutted by a thirty-floor building. This is especially jarring, as Calcutta is not overwhelmed with tall buildings. Occasionally, people from the neighborhood will loiter around the greens on the holes that are near the course’s boundaries.” Considering the oasis the course must represent, who can blame them?
Over nearly a century of play, Royal Calcutta has been the site of many great championships. It’s even had a small role in India’s political intrigue. “There was a time in the seventies when the Communist party was trying to mobilize the citizenry to oppose industrialists and capitalists,” Sanjeev recalled. “There was a huge movement to overthrow those who were perceived as ‘the rich.’ This leftist group—the Naxalites¾tried to use the premises of the club for their criminal activities. There were murders and other assorted mayhem perpetrated on the course, but club members—who certainly must have been viewed as agents of the oppressing class—were never bothered. It was just the various political factions hacking each other off. The battles usually occurred at night. Play was never interrupted, though occasionally members would come across a corpse in one of the tanks [i.e., water hazards].”
Trees come into play in a memorable way on several holes at Royal Calcutta. “On one par four, a gargantuan banyan tree sits about one hundred yards in front of the tee,” Rick said. “It must be forty yards wide, like a giant mushroom. It makes the Lone Cypress look like a twig. Banyan trees are considered sacred in India. Even though it’s in the middle of the fairway, it won’t be cut down. The hole has a large tank on the left, and it doglegs left. Despite this, better players have to hit a hard fade over the water because of the tree.”
One of Sanjeev’s favorite holes is the sixteenth. “It’s the cutest par four,” he said. “Big guys can hit it within twenty yards of the green, but there’s trouble if you’re not on target. There are two palm trees in the middle of the fairway, and the hole is aptly nicknamed Mutt and Jeff, in their honor. Though it’s short, many championships are won on lost on this hole as players come down the stretch.”
Thanks to vagaries in the labor market and a variety of other circumstances, conditions at Royal Calcutta can fluctuate between very good and much less tolerable. “We had to shut the club down in April 2003 due to labor problems,” Sanjeev related, “and when we reopened in October I was saddened as I saw a complete jungle on my beloved Royal. But the staff and the committee worked tirelessly, and within a month we were able to stage the East India Championship. The Royal came through all the rot just fine. At this year’s tourney, professionals and amateurs who came from all over India said that this was still the best track in the country.”
Rick Lipsey is a lifelong golfer. Currently a five-handicapper, he captained his team at Cornell University, and he’s been a staff golf writer at Sports Illustrated since 1994. Rick grew up caddying in the suburbs of New York City, working primarily at Westchester Country Club. He also worked at events on the PGA Tour, where he once looped for Greg Norman. Over the last few years, Rick has become passionate about golf in Asia. In 2002 he spent three months in Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, working as the first ever pro at Royal Thimphu Golf Club. He also created the Bhutan Youth Golf Association, a year-round golf program for children (www.golfbhutan.com). In 2004 Rick spent three weeks golfing in India. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
If You Go
Getting There: Calcutta is served by numerous airlines, including Air India, British Airways, and Delta. Most flights from the United States go through London or Paris.
Course Information: Royal Calcutta is 7,300 yards from the tourney tees and plays to a par 72. While technically a private club, members are happy to host green fee-paying outsiders. The fee is very modest at 500 Rupees ($12). The course’s reasonable fees are made possible in part by the many sponsorship opportunities that are offered around the course; the pro shop is sponsored by Willis cigarettes, the bar by Johnnie Walker.
Accommodations: Simi Mehra recommends the Tollygunge Club (91-33 2417 6022; www.thetollygungeclub.com), which has seventy air-conditioned rooms plus numerous sporting facilities of its own, including a golf course. It’s a chip shot away from the course. For a memorable meal, Simi recommends the Bar B Cue (on Park Street), which features some of the best Chinese food she’s ever encountered. “Once you eat at this restaurant, you can never again enjoy Chinese anywhere else in the world!”