Writer GK Chesterton regarded it as an expensive way of playing marbles, while South African pro Gary Player found it a puzzle without an answer.
But Assam, battered by decades of insurgency and ethnic violence, believes golf is a puzzle worth reinvesting in to have all the marbles. Reinvestment, because more than a century ago, British tea planters - mostly from Scotland, where the game originated - had invested in scores of golf courses in luxuriant tea estates.
Lately, the planters' clubs, lording over some 20 golf courses, have been trying to shed their colonial hangover to let the golfing locals drive and putt. These Scottish legacies are a part of the plan to make Assam a tea-and-golf destination for tourists. But the focus of this campaign is the newest member of the 'tea-tee club' - the Kaziranga Golf Club (KGCL) in Sangsua Tea Estate near Jorhat town, 308 km east of Guwahati.
Established by planter Hemendra Prasad Barooah in 2011 as a resort, Kaziranga Golf Course is really the odd one out, as it is the only designer course and the only one with 18 holes. The other tea estate courses are all nine-hole courses. Unlike the others, it is also close to Assam's most popular destinations amongst visiting golfers.
If the Kaziranga National Park is 73 kms west of this golf course, the cultural island of Majuli is closer (25 kms), while the medieval moidams - pyramid-like burials of members of the state's royalty - at Charaideo are only 65 kms east.
"HP Barooah was a visionary planter who opened up his tea estate bungalows to usher in tea tourism a decade ago when the tea industry was passing through a bad phase. Golf added value to stays in colonial estate bungalows packaged with plucking and making your own tea," AK Choudhury, managing director of KGCL, says.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi
But post-independence, golf was facing the threat of fading out like another planters' passion - polo.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Outside of the UK, India was the first country to adopt golf. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club was set up in 1829, six decades after the St Andrews golf club in Scotland began its journey to become the 'home of golf'. The northeast had its first golf club in Shillong - then the headquarters of Assam province - in 1898. By then, British tea planters had already carved out scores of golf courses in estates across the Brahmaputra Valley.
"Robert Bruce, a Scot, is credited with discovering tea in Assam in 1823 though the Singpho community was growing tea for ages. With other Scots following him, it was natural for golf to be a part of the tea garden culture," says Anjan Barua, the Jorhat-based retired scientist who has documented Assam's tea history.
Golf in the tea estates became organised after the Jorhat Gymkhana Club, established in 1876, became a recreational hub for the planters of central Assam. "From 1902, planters from across the province got together for competitive golf at the nine-hole Gymkhana course. There were at least seven championships such as the Beg Dunlop Cup that weighed 2.5 kg, Craig Cup, Lamprell Cut, Rustom Cup and the Flying Dutchman trophy that was sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. These championships vanished by the 1960s," Anjan Barua says. A few 'golf gardens' in the interiors even had airstrips for small aircrafts to ferry the planters and executives.
Later, these courses were either abandoned or planted with bushes, as were the golf courses in some other estates - particularly those run by individuals who took them over from the British - whose owners found them too expensive to maintain. Moreover, most Indian owners felt work was more important than play.
"Our company spends `4-5 lakh annually on the maintenance of each of the four golf courses on the northern bank of river Brahmaputra. The break refreshes us like the tea we make," says Uddhav Baruah, a golfer and tea taster at the Pertabghur estate in Sonitpur district.
INSURGENCE TO RESURGENCE
"The health of the tea industry is crucial for improving Assam's agriculture-based economy," said Tarun Gogoi, after becoming the chief minister of the state in 2001. "No state in India has so many vintage golf courses as Assam, almost all of them carved out of scenic tea estates. It was our responsibility to make use of such a rich legacy, and dovetail it with tea tourism," he added.
Since the early 1980s, the industry was trying to recover from the turbulence after the United Liberation Front of Assam and other outfits started to target the 'elitist' planters, for ransom and 'revolutionary tax'. Militancy saw scores of planters and executives flying out of Assam in 1990, leading to a major counter-offensive. Ironically, a few of the executives used the airstrips in the tea estates, many of which had been used during the World War 2 by British planters and their golfing associates, to fly out to safety.
Barring area-specific violence, mostly beyond the tea-growing belt, insurgency waned by the mid-2000s. But the global market slump and the labour unrest bogged the tea industry further. The scenario improved following New Delhi's Special Purpose Tea Fund scheme rejuvenation and replanting, as well as the planters' focus on quality organic tea.
Golf got rejuvenated too, because of HP Barooah and Dibrugarh-based planter Manoj Jalan whose tourism wing began marketing golf holidays offering "nostalgic tee-off in local chai bagan clubs". Later, the state government pitched in too.
"The tea club golf courses are recreational, not promotional. For tourism to succeed, one needs a quality turf and a 24-hour kitchen; not a clubhouse that operates only on weekends. Apart from individuals, these courses need a certain degree of patronisation from the government to be really attractive to tourists," says Prantor Baruah, an A-level golf referee and member of Upper Assam Golf Association.
Not all golf courses are strategically located to turn them into a tourist destination, he adds. "And the rains often force us to focus only on the nineteenth hole, the bar."
In 2014, connectivity and proximity to major tourist attractions made the Kaziranga Golf Resort a venue for Assam Tourism Development Corporation's showpiece golf tournament for amateurs. The tournament attracted 70-odd golfers this year.
"Besides organising tournaments, we are looking at co-branding with tea estates for a major push for the tea-and-golf tourism. Our efforts are showing result, albeit slowly," says VS Bhaskar, Assam's additional chief secretary in charge of tourism.
The efforts have translated into plantation workers and other locals training to be caddies and earning Rs 100-250 per round of golf. The KGCL has a sizeable team to provide service to visiting golfers as well.
"HP Barooah wanted the Kaziranga Golf Course to be the toughest on earth, and the New Delhi-based Ranjit Nanda who designed it said that even world champions would find it tough to play here," says Somnath Chatterjee, managing director of the resort's parent group Barooah & Associates.
"What makes this course the most challenging is the narrowness of the fairway between the rows of tea bushes where losing a ball is easy. And of course, the ambience is a distraction," says Major General Vinod Kumar, a regular golfer from an army base in Jorhat.
But the 'toughness' comes at a price. The course needs Rs 1.5 crore annually, besides the 80-120 employees to maintain it. Part of that money comes from vacationers and school and college students who are shaping up to be pros.
"Our tee box accommodates up to 40 persons, which is ideal for learners," says Jogananda Gogoi, a golf instructor at KGCL. The outcome is a golfer like Maitreya Milan Saikia, who at nine years, has a few trophies under his belt.
Golfers feel that with at least 25 courses - three under oil majors and a few at army and air force bases - Assam can become India's golf capital. But for that to happen, Guwahati, the communication and business hub of the northeast, has to have a quality golf course.
"The only golf course in Guwahati is in an army cantonment, and playing there depends on whether or not the commanding officer is a golfer. We egged the authorities on for a comprehensive golf plan, and it culminated in the acquiring of 180 bighas (30 acres) of land at Chandrapur on the eastern outskirts of Guwahati," says Ajay Jalan, secretary of Assam Golf Association.
According to VS Bhaskar, the land will be developed into a golf training and playing centre on a public-private partnership model.
The 18-HOLE GOLF COURSES IN THE RECORD BOOKS
1 Yak Golf Course in Kupup, East Sikkim, is the highest in the world at an altitude of 13,025 ft where yaks are used as golf carts to carry players; it turns into a ski centre during winter. 2 Shillong Golf Course is the world's second oldest natural one after St Andrews Old Course in Scotland. 3Digboi Golf Course is maintained by the world's oldest operating refinery (since 1901). 4Kaziranga Golf Course is, according to golfers, the toughest in South Asia owing to narrowness of fairway between rows of tea bushes.