The Royal Calcutta is the oldest golf club in the world outside of the UK. Founded in 1829, the “Royal” moved to its present location in Tollygunge, a district then on the southern outskirts of the city, in 1910. (There is also a Tollygunge Country Club, just down a lane and across the road from the Royal. Tollygunge has a riding school, swimming pools, tennis courts and a hotel, and shares much of its membership with the Royal, which is strictly a golf club.)
The Royal sits on a dead flat site, and no longer is much of a challenge for the club’s best players, who are a pretty distinguished group. The course record is held by Arjun Atwal, the only Indian professional ever to play full-time on the American PGA Tour. Atwal grew up in Kolkata and learned to play at the Royal, though he now lives in Florida.
On a hazy morning in early December, I was invited to join the Royal’s captain, Aveek Sarkar, for a playing tour of Royal’s front 9. A media mogul who tees off an dawn almost every day, the captain possesses a stately swing and a steady game. Rounding out our foursome were Gaurav Ghosh, a very good amateur player from a family of distinguished tee merchants, and Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia, winner of the 2008 Indian Masters, a European PGA Tour event. Among the players in the field Chowrasia conquered were Ernie Els, Thomas Bjorn and Atwal.
Compact and with a lovely smile, the player known as Chipputtsia for his great skill around the greens, takes down the Royal with ease. The green-keeping crew live in a small settlement surrounding the course’s maintenance facilities, dead in the heart of the grounds. Chowrasia’s father was a green keeper who lived with his family near the 9th green. As a boy, Chowrasia hung around the course, hoping for a chance to play, and was taken under their wings by some of the club’s members, who recognized his talents. In 1997, when he was 21, Chowrasia turned professional. He has since won eight times on the Indian Tour.
The captain stewed as Ghosh and Chowrasia piled on the birdies, proof that the Royal had lost its teeth. “This should be the hardest course in India,” he said. “Now it’s too easy.” He was not looking for a course that imitated the cool and elegant American-style layouts popping up across India, but preferred a classic parkland course which would preserve the Royal’s heritage while stiffening its defenses. He’s campaigning now for a major renovation.
Recently the Royal had received a modest partial makeover, inspired not by strategic or aesthetic interests, but, in the only such instance I have ever heard of, in response to a political struggle. Ten years or so ago, local residents starting clambering over the fence with their cricket gear and footballs, claiming the fairways as pitches. They dared the members to tee off into their matches, evoking a series of confrontations. The club’s CEO was assaulted and had his arm broken. The police came. The neighborhood sportsmen set the clubhouse verandah on fire.
That’s when the club decided to corrugate some fairways. The undulations they ordered are neither deep nor dramatic, but proved effective in discouraging bowlers and batsmen. The new shapes had no effect on the Royal’s vulnerability to low scores.
The clubhouse has been repaired. After our round, we repaired there for omelets and tea. After he won the Indian Masters, Chowrasia was invited to join the club. Though he grew up on the grounds, and lived a few hundred yards from the clubhouse for most of his life, when he accepted the invitation to join the club last year, Chowrasia stepped foot in the clubhouse for the first time. He was surprised to see pictures of himself holding trophies aloft on the clubhouse walls.