Teeing off on the world's rooftop
by Preeti Verma Lal
It is a nation in pursuit of Gross National Happiness. The pursuit has certainly worked: the tiny landlocked nation is Asia ’s happiest nation and the world’s 8 th happiest. Perhaps happy nations need no traffic lights. Well, it is a country without traffic lights (the sole traffic light was removed by the King’s orders!). You do not need a light either. For smoking is strictly prohibited. Here, archery is the national sport, mountaineering is banned and until recently golf was just a four-letter word. Literally. Not metaphorically, silly. One May morning, I flew into the rooftop of the world to hike, pray, and eat ema datshi (chilli cooked with cheese). No, I was not there to play golf. In Bhutan , however, golf came calling and I screeched into the not-so-lavish 9-hole Royal Thimpu Golf Club.
My knees were wobbly. The day before, I had hiked up 10,240 ft (that’s one-third the height of Mt Everest) to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan ’s most sacred Buddhist site and trekking trail. I had huffed 7-kms uphill with a duff pair of lungs to the white monastery that clings to the edge of a brown brawny cliff where, in the 8 th century, Guru Rinpoche had meditated for three months. The one-hour drive from Paro to Thimpu was no solace for my fatigued lungs. At the Royal Thimpu Golf Club, the tired I settled for stories before hitting the greens.
The story of golf in Bhutan did not begin in Stone Age (though there’s a tale about Stone Age golf, would come to that later…). It began in the early 1970s when a Brigadier of the Indian Army laid his eyes on a scrap of fallow paddy fields at 2500 metres above sea level, sought permission from King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and cobbled together a 9-hole golf course. There were no pros, no golf shops, no qualified instructors. Not too many golfers, either. The avid amateurs begged and pleaded with relatives settled abroad to get the golf equipment. The pleading continues because Bhutan still has no snazzy golf shop. In the past four decades, the number of club members has bloated to 130. The number of holes, however, remains the same: 9. So, you play twice over in an undulating terrain that has beefy hills to its left and at the far end sits the majestic 17 th century Trashi Chhoe Dzong, home of the National Assembly and summer residence of the capital’s monastic community.
There are three golf courses in Thimpu, but the Royal Thimpu Golf Club is the only ‘proper’ course. India House (the Indian embassy) boasts of a golf course. Ask Bhutanese golfers and they would proudly tell you that it is the only embassy precincts in the world with a golf course. Probably, they are right.
In the sparse restaurant in the Golf Club, Kali Gurung, the receptionist, throws a big smile and brings a bowl of piping hot Lom Jaju (dried spinach soup). In walked Ugyen Yougs Dorji, a weekend golfer in a beautiful pink tee. He picked up the threads of the story of how the old browns of the Royal Thimpu Golf Club turned green in the early 1990s and that’s when the so-called ‘golf boom’ began in Bhutan .
‘Boom’ is surely not epiphany. Remember, there used to be Stone Age golf. Or, so the story goes. Just before winter, shepherds from the north herded their yaks down to the valley where yaks were sold, slaughtered and preserved as food for the harsh winter. That’s when the Yak Open began. A yak was bought as a trophy for about Rs 10,000-15,0000. But the winner did not take it all; winners were given parts of the yak – raw and unskinned. The winner got the head, the runner’s-up, the best cut! Yaks have been replaced with Ipads, iPods, cars, gizmos as trophies. In Bhutan , the golf prize money is never cash. The Yak Open is dead, but Bhutan Open Championship, Bhutan Lottery Tournament, Trongsa Poenlop Championship and the Coronation Cup finds several takers.
I did not have to leaf through history to learn by rote the names of winners. Three large brown wooden boards with fresh varnish had the names in white. Here, even Hole in One gets lauded and painted for posterity. Major Leela Bahadur Gurung got the 10 th hole on September 3, 2009 ; Sanado got Hole 1 on December 28, 2002 , Major Hemant Paliwal Hole 8 on April 2, 2006 . The list is not etched in gilt but Bhutanese golfers would die to get their name stenciled on that shiny brown board. Once upon a time even a handicap sheet was pasted on the Club House window. At the top of the list was 13.2 handicap. The name: His Majesty.
Golf in Bhutan soon found a messiah. Rick Lipsey, a Sports Illustrated golf writer, landed in Bhutan . No, not to play golf. He came as a tourist. Golf tiptoed into the Buddhist nation soon after. He set up the Bhutan Youth Golf Association (BYGA) and fuelled the passion for a sport which was almost unknown before the 1970s. BYGA has changed hands and colours, but one can still find primary school golfers teeing off with scratch players happily lending them a lesson or two.
Full to the gill with Lom Jaju and tales of golf on the rooftop of the world, I step out into the 2800-yard golf course. Three prayer flags were fluttering with tranquil abandon at the steps of the Club House, a black dog was lazing in the bunkers and old women were hunched over the greens, clearing the weeds with sharp scythes. The once-upon-a-time paddy field still looks rustic, with trees planted haphazardly and manmade concrete water hazards resembling baby’s playpen.
I bump into Dorjee Norbu, who, at 69, is the oldest member of the Royal Thimpu Golf Club. Norbu studied in Nainital Birla Vidya Mandir, finds Indians very tolerant, the rural people beautiful and makes an annual pilgrimage to Tollygunje Golf Club (Kolkata) for a round of hearty golf. In Thimpu, he finds Hole 1 the easiest and Hole 7, the most difficult. However, hardpan the fairways, Norbu is a regular at the Royal Thimpu Golf Club; he loves its peace.
“Do not walk that far, you would get lost in the roughs,” Nawang Gyetse, Managing Director, Bhutan Development Finance Corporation, exhorted. “In summers, when the grass grows too tall, it is difficult to find golf balls,” Gyetse laughed, hitting the ball at Hole 5, which is closest to the Dzong. “Sometimes, even I get lost. You see, there’s no money to mow the grass,” Gyetse chuckled. Thankfully, I did not get lost. I sat on a green bench by Hole 5 and ordered momos and samosas. In a blink, a woman wearing the traditional kira appeared with a dainty tray and scrumptious samosas. I ask Gyetse what he loves most about this course. “I love the 19 th hole”, he answered swiftly. Did golf acquire a new hole in Thimpu, I wondered. “Oh! 19 th is the watering hole. The restaurant in the Club House,” he guffawed. Well, at Royal Thimpu Golf Club, you do not need to trudge up to the watering hole for a drink. Just order anywhere.
“I didn’t go to Bhutan to play golf. Really. I went because of my wife”. These are the opening lines of Rick Lipsey’s book Golfing on the Roof of the World. My golfing story in Bhutan had another twist. I sure didn’t go to Bhutan to play golf. Really. I went because I wanted to hike, pray and eat ema datshi. But, in Bhutan , golf came calling. And I shall tiptoe into the last Buddhist kingdom soon. This time the rosary would make way for woods, irons and putters. I would play in one of the remotest golf courses in the world. I would happily ignore the yak dung, the stray dog in the bunkers and the unmown grass. For, there’s something about its peace.
Golf Style, 2011