Driving for the Zabarwans | Nat Geo Traveller India

Driving for the Zabarwans

The uniquely enchanting courses of Kashmir beckon golfers to the land of the crests and vales.  
Driving for the Zabarwans 1
Little Swamp, the par 3 #12 hole at Royal Springs. Photo courtesy: Atul Dhir

“As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.”

— Ben Hogan

For the Indian golfer, I would alter that adage by one of the all-time greats to say at least one round in Kashmir is a must to consider your life on the links complete. The beautiful valley of Kashmir boasts four courses: Royal Springs and Kashmir Golf Club courses in Srinagar, the Lidder course at Pahalgam, and the Gulmarg golf course. Other than Royal Springs, none of these courses are of tournament standard, but their USP combines the spectacular mountain scenery and delightful weather that holds through the height of summer. Even when you are not playing that well—which for the average golfer is most of the time— the environs will enchant you like the scent of Kashmiri gulab.

Lidder Valley: The Lidder Valley golf course is situated in the picturesque town of Pahalgam and takes its name from the river Lidder, which runs close by. About half of the holes are laid out over a big central arena with a couple of large water bodies in the middle. The setting is spectacular amidst the soaring peaks and thick coniferous forests that surround us. I am playing with Asif Burqa, whose family owns the Heevan hotel where I am staying. Asif is a long hitter of the ball and this is his home course, so I immediately feel the pressure of being the newbie. Still, everyone is kind and helpful, including Aminullah Mohammed Raina, my young caddie, who starts instructing me on what clubs to use. I am never reluctant to tap into local expertise and knowledge.

The back nine meanders up a gentle hill before sloping downwards again. At the top I gaze on a magnificent panorama of the whole course framed by the mountains beyond. This is the kind of tonic that raises a golfer’s spirit and re-energises their game. Asif has to leave after six holes, and with the pressure off, my game immediately lifts a few notches; I even make par on a few holes. After nine holes we stop outside the brand new clubhouse, which unfortunately hasn’t been formally opened, and eat our packed lunch on the verandah.

The club manager organises a cart for me on the front nine. We push off to where the course slopes downward into a narrow valley and the line of sight to the green is hemmed in by the conifers. My game sinks back to its usual level but I am enjoying the challenge.  At one point, a raven descends from a tree and makes off with my yellow ball before the caddie can shoo it away. I am more amused than upset—an occupational hazard like this makes for quite the anecdote. Apparently, the Lidder course is known for this unique ‘ball lost’ situation,  making an aagewala (ball spotter at the front) a good accompaniment to your game.

My general take on the Lidder course is that while the tee boxes and fairways definitely need more work, the putting greens are in good shape. Overall it is a very pleasant experience in a magnificent setting for the visiting golfer and should be played at least once.

 

Driving for the Zabarwans

Orchard, the par 4 #18 hole at Royal Springs. Photo courtesy: Atul Dhir

 

Royal Springs:  The Mecca of golf in Kashmir is undoubtedly its newest, Royal Springs, which first opened in Srinagar during 2001. Laid out in the shadow of the stunning Zabarwan mountain range, it is every inch a professional course; unsurprisingly, it was crafted under the expert guidance of Robert Trent Jones II’s world-famous golf course design firm. Royal Springs is the only course in Kashmir considered good enough to have hosted a number of Professional Golf Tour of India championships. The philosophy of RTJ II is to design golf courses that appear to have been shaped by the same forces that created the surrounding landforms. This is clearly evident at Royal Springs where the course has been moulded perfectly to the undulating foot belt of the Zabarwan range that descends onto the shores of the famous Dal Lake.

My playing partners are Vicky Shaw and Khursheed Badoo, two Kashmiri old-timers on their  home course.  With handicaps in the single-digit range, I was clearly no match for them, but their assistance and encouragement was invaluable. The fairways were well maintained and the greens were carefully manicured, which helped me get the occasional par. Playing on a beautiful course like Royal Springs in such sublime weather and with agreeable companions is my version of paradise on earth (as Kashmir was once called by Emperor Jahangir).

Most of the holes are named for a species of Kashmiri tree—almond, chinar, mulberry, walnut and so on—which struck me as rather quaint. At one point, the caddies climb up and bring down several tiny treil apples for our immediate on-course refreshment. We stop for coffee at the signature par 3 hole 5 called Dal’s Vista, which affords a distant view of the lake on a clear day. This is a tricky par three, which curves down the hill to the right with a menacing water body guarding that side of the green. My first drive goes wide but my buddies allow me a mulligan. With some coaching and the right club and line, my second shot soars perfectly and lands on the green. Thrilled beyond measure, I soak in the sublime moment every golfer lives for, and what brings them back to the game again and again.

Vicky tells me that his favourite hole is the par 4 on 13 named Chestnut, “This is a slight left dogleg where it appears as if you are driving straight to the top of the Zabarwans’. Tucked halfway up the mountain I can make out Pari Mahal, the royal gardens and retreat built by Dara Shukoh in 1650, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jehan. I can imagine His Highness watching the royal game being played out beneath his feet, and invoke his imaginary blessings as I set up for my drive. Of course no such benedictions are forthcoming and I slice my shot to the right. That’s the thing about golf, if you hit one really good long drive half the work is done. Otherwise, you are struggling all the way to the green.

We round the last bend and the long par 5 on the 18th hole, called Orchard, stretches out before us with the clubhouse looming in the distance. It is the home stretch and it would be great to end on a high note. But there is a lurking water hazard to the right and I end up duffing my shots and consigning two balls to its depths. Such is the nature of golf, it can be the most uplifting or the most maddening of games. But playing in the enchanting environment of Royal Springs at least ensures that such black moods are only short-lived.

 

Driving for the Zabarwans 2

Bunkers loom large at the Kashmir Golf Club. Photo courtesy: Atul Dhir

 

Author’s note: Kashmir Golf Club and Gulmarg Golf Club were not played at the time this story was written.

Kashmir Golf Club:  KGC was closed for play from 2014 due to floods and re-opened in July 2021 with a redesigned layout. This is Kashmir’s second oldest golf club, having been founded by the British in the early 1900s as a welcome escape from the heat of the plains during the summers. Nestled in the heart of Srinagar and lined with tall chinar and poplar trees, this heritage club has a reputation for being a tricky course which can be a challenge for golfers playing there for the first time.

Gulmarg Golf Club:  In the heyday of the British Empire the Gulmarg Golf Club, founded in 1892, was the pre-eminent course in Kashmir and the centre of social activity among the British golfing elite, hosting glittering galas and fetes. Sadly, it has fallen on hard times ever since the club house burned down in 1948, and golf activity there has been quite sporadic. The course has deteriorated and is unplayable in its current condition, though the J&K administration has plans to renovate it and open it for play by next year. I went for a walk along the fairways overlooked by the compact St. Mary’s Church made of wood and stone. Certainly it has great potential to regain its former glory as a very beautiful course laid out in the shallow bowl of the high green Gulmarg valley.

All images were sourced from Atul Dhir from his upcoming book “Golfing in Paradise” scheduled to be released later this year.

 

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Green Fees for Indian Non-Members

18 Holes at Lidder Valley: Rs 1,200 (Golf Cart: Rs 500)

18 Holes at Royal Springs: Rs 2,500 (Golf Cart starting at: Rs 500)

18 Holes at Kashmir Golf Club: Rs 700 (Golf Cart: Rs 500)

  • Ranjan Pal is an adventurer at heart, and pursues his twin passions for travel writing and the outdoors. Equally excited by a Himalayan trek and a raging rapid, he believes that travel is life-changing.

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