The Gulmarg Golf Club is, in many ways, a traditional Scottish links course. It’s long, at 7,505 yards for a par 72, with a nasty rough and up and down fairways that were once maintained by nibbling sheep. The catch is, Gulmarg isn’t in Scotland. Surrounded by pine-fringed meadows and snow-capped mountains, it’s the world’s highest golf course, at nearly 8,700 feet high, and it’s in Kashmir, India.
Most Westerners don’t think of the subcontinent as a hotbed for golf, but the game has an established history here, dating to the British East India Company’s rule in the 19th century. (The Royal Calcutta Golf Club, built in 1829, is the oldest course in the world outside the U.K.) And now, with golf tourism booming worldwide and wealth within India growing, new championship-quality courses are popping up alongside old landmarks like Gulmarg and the Delhi Golf Club, which incorporates Mughal-era ruins.
“We have about 220 golf courses in the country, and about 25 are signature golf courses, which are at par with international standard,” says Indian golf promoter Danish Aman. “The best new ones are the Kalhaar Blues & Greens in Ahmedabad and the DLF in Gurgaon, a top-class facility with a great academy.”
Those new courses come with great pedigrees: Jack Nicklaus designed the Kalhaar Blues & Greens, while Gary Player designed the DLF. And there are more than a dozen new courses under construction in places ranging from Punjab to Gujarat.
The game’s rising profile is being driven both internally and externally. India has the world’s fastest-growing free market economy, with an expanding affluent population—both foreigners working in corporate management and upwardly mobile young Indian executives—who are interested in the game. Golf tourism worldwide is growing at an annual rate of 9.3 percent, and about 1.6 million golfers travel every year to golfing destinations. (Studies have shown that more than 70 percent of players are looking to visit new golfing destinations.) The Indian national government has taken note and developed a tourism plan that includes programs to teach and certify male and female caddies to accommodate the rising number of golfers.
Of course, a visit to India offers adventurous golfers the chance to check off cultural bucket list items as well. “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,” says 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. “And play the course again, 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.”