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June 2018

Through the Eyes of India

By Randy Williams

They came from all parts of the country. Some owners represented courses situated along the coast. Other managers came from layouts set high up in the mountains. Still more represented desert play, while others came from the central plains.
Oh, and that country? It is India.

Last month, for the first time in India’s history, its annual national tourism conference held a gathering of golf course owners, managers, promoters and government officials to discuss ways to build on a sport that is booming all across their country.

Held in Srinagar, the capital city of India’s northern state of Kashmir, attendees covered similar topics many American golf course operators face – dealing with seasonal weather, the cost of high-tech maintenance equipment, catering-hospitality revenue, corporate outings, increasing income from pro shop and driving range operations; but mostly how to increase awareness of their given course and draw in more players and, where applicable, sign up new members.
“We wanted to create a forum that would allow course owners and management to explore ways to handle common challenges regardless of where their facility is located in our country,” said Rajan Sehgal, president of the India Golf Tourism Association (IGTA), who served as the golf convention’s master of ceremonies.

 When it comes to India, most westerners conjure up images of spicy foods, Bollywood movies and the Taj Mahal. Very few think of the sport of golf. That is changing, quickly. Building on the strength of the nation’s position as the fastest-growing free-market economy, all across India golf courses are popping up along with four- and five-star hotels to support them.

“There are over 200 golf courses in the country and over two dozen are signature golf courses that meet international standards, and we have many first-class hotels nearby to accommodate discerning players,” said Ghalib Mohi-ud-Din, managing director of J&K Golf Development. One of his courses — the Royal Springs Golf Club in Kashmir (host site of the convention) — is one of those global-caliber courses.

“Royal Springs was designed by Robert Trent Jones II in 2001 and draws many international tourists year-round. And with studies showing that golfers spend 30-40 percent more than the average tourist, we are optimistic about our growth,” said Mohi-ud-Din.

Conventioneers represented courses built by major names in the sport including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

India has all kinds of courses, but a rather distinct one is located just about an hour from Srinagar and it has two compelling features.

Gulmarg is a links-style layout and is also the world’s highest 18-hole golf course.

“With elevated tees, up and down fairways, penalizing rough, and a monstrous 665-yard, par-5 fourth hole, it presents a severe test of physical and golfing abilities,” said Ghulam-Mohammad Rohat of the Gulmarg Development Authority, “Certainly the most authentic Scottish links-style layout in the country.”

Over the years, this golf course has witnessed a lot of changes from the days when sheep nibbled on the fairways to keep them even. Ranjit Nanda, a well-known golf course designer based in Delhi, has designed the present structure. The golf course, measuring 7,505 yards (par 72), was re-inaugurated in 2011.

But, like his colleagues across the country, Rohat faces challenges keeping the historic course operating at optimum levels. Like American course owners that manage courses in areas that have heavy winters, Rohat has to concern himself with the fact that when the snow melts, “We have to deal with mold, fungus and brown grass patches all over the course.”

Another issue common to link-style course operators in America is simply the grass.

“There is lot of wild grass, not seeded grass all over the course. Many natural varieties of wild grass. Seeds from weeds blow in the wind and carry new seeds all over, so that is a challenge to maintain.”

But overall, Indian golf impresarios came away from the inaugural conference buoyant that the economic future of the sport in their country would continue to raise their game.  

Mixing in golf with its rich culture, exotic appeal and variety, a number of Indian resorts have already experienced success in this fast-growing niche that is part of an annual influx of nearly 9 million foreign tourists a year.

Deepak Menezes, the general manager at the ITC Grand Bharat, a resort about 30 miles outside Delhi that features a 27-hole, Nicklaus-designed layout, points out how his course is taking advantage of the booming business of golf tourism.
“Golfers welcome the fact that they can play a round, and then the next day we arrange a day trip for them to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. And play the course again, and then take a couple of days to visit the magical Pink City of Jaipur. It’s India’s famous Golden Triangle — but with world class golf.”

There’s a rising affluent population in India — both foreigners working in corporate management and upwardly mobile young Indian executives — who have an interest in golf. That information, coupled with new studies conducted by India’s government revealing more than 70 percent of players worldwide are looking to visit a new golfing destination, left conventioneers feeling very optimistic. 

Randy Williams is a freelance journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He provided the photos.


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