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The vast undulating field at Golf Link is a favourite not only of the tourists but also the locals. Young lovers, parents with children and senior citizens throng the place for fresh air and a peaceful stroll. But it is on Saturday and Sunday mornings that the field meets its destiny when golfers, veteran and young, putt and par and walk across the field wielding their drivers and wedges in pride.
The field, nestled amid pine trees, is more than a scenic viewpoint. The around 6,000-yard 18-hole 70 par course is the country’s second oldest after the one at Kolkata’s Royal Calcutta Golf Club.
Golf was introduced in Shillong in the 19th century. Initially, a nine-hole course was started at the present day Garrison Ground and Lady Hydari Park. The 18-hole course was planned in 1897 and the “credit for laying of this beautiful and picturesque course goes to Captain Jackson and Messrs. CK Rhodes and EL Watts”, wrote JC Mawroh, former vice golf captain, in an article aptly titled Shillong’s Golf Course — A gift to the world of Golf.
The credit also goes to NL Deb under whose supervision the greens were groomed. The former supervisor joined the club in 1923. “… this golf course is a precious thing for Meghalaya,” he told in an interview.
“This course was only one in the North East and is best in the sense that it is a natural golf course and it did not have to be made from scratch as in the case of other golf courses in the country,” said 90-year-old golfer Melvin Smith. He and his partners come for a game every Wednesday and Saturday.
The golf club, a quaint Assam-type building that sits atop the course, was started in October 1923. The wooden structure has gone through various modifications since then but it still effuses muted elegance and a strong sense of heritage. The several photographs on the wooden walls of the club house are proof of the glorious past.
Another witness to the yesteryear eminence is 67-year-old Noni Dey, the golf supervisor. Dey joined the club as a ball boy in 1964. Later, he became a caddie and worked hard to become the one responsible for the maintenance of the golf course.
Dey vaguely remembers seeing a few Englishmen in the club but has clear memory of the royal members and golfers. “I was working here when the maharajas of Tripura, Mayurbhanj and Bijni were members. Those were days when the who’s who from across the country played golf here and the number of members ran in hundreds,” he said.
Among the “who’s who” golfers were presidents, vice-presidents and governors. The club regularly hosted top tournaments like the IIM Golf Tournament and PGTI tournament (2014 and 2016).
But those were in the past. Now, the club and the golf course have lost much of its magnificence though the façade of the rich heritage remains. Several veteran golfers whom Sunday Shillong spoke to said the golf course “has definitely deteriorated over the years”.
In an article titled The Shillong Golf Club — Yesterday, today and tomorrow, retired Lt Col O Laloo wrote, “After independence in 1947, the course started to slowly and progressively deteriorate. This was inevitable, as many local players have not picked up the game by then… But gradually golf began to gain popularity but, alas, the damage had been done due to half-hearted maintenance (for lack of fund) (and) over the years the deterioration was almost complete.”
The broken wooden planks on the floor near a doorway inside the club house tell the story of the continuing degradation of golf culture in the hill city.
True, the number of local players has increased since independence but there is still a lack of interest in the sport. The number of avid golfers has dwindled from hundreds to a meagre 40-50. On any given Saturday or Sunday, there are not more than 20-25 golfers. “Though any member of Shillong Club is by default a member of the golf club, there are about 40 regular golf playing members,” said Dey, adding that only a few golfers from outside now come here.
The upkeep of the course is also not up to the mark and it is apparent from the plastic wrappers and PET bottles littered everywhere. This is because unlike any other course in the country, the Shillong golf course is open to the public and without any fee. “It is a golf course cum park,” Mohendro Rapsang, once an avid golfer, mocked.
Indeed it is. People even come for picnics and cook on the course paying little or no heed to the fact that it can ruin one of the finest existing courses in the country. Visitors stroll around with munchies in hand and dispose of the wrappers anywhere on the field. One reason, besides lack of civic sense, is that there are no dustbins.
The nullahs cutting through the course are filled with filth and are an eyesore. The worst part is that one of the linking roads cuts through the course and the heavy traffic mars its beauty.
Also, the club now rarely hosts top tournaments. The IIM tournament last year that was supposed to take place in the golf course was shifted to the Assam Rifles course in Laitkor.
But who is to be blamed for the worsening condition? A section of the senior golfers in the city that Sunday Shillong spoke to pointed fingers at the existing management.
The golf club and the course have always been managed by the Shillong Club, another heritage institution. However, the land for the course was given by 5-6 clans which signed an agreement with the then deputy commissioner. But now it is under the supervision of Shillong Club.
When asked why the club did not try to fence the golf course and restrict movement of people, Rapsang said a wall was built but it was broken. “And this keeps on happening,” agreed 80-year-old golfer MB Phanbuh, who showed a broken part of the wall.
The incongruous growth of concrete along the periphery of the golf course has also spoiled the beauty and serenity of the place.
Some are of the view that the government can take over the course and do the needful. “The state will host the 2022 Games and this is the condition of the course. Nothing has been done,” observed a golfer.
According to Rapsang, who is a member in the managing board of Shillong Club, “a lot of money is required” to maintain the field and the club does not have the wherewithal. He admitted that government support is required and “if nothing is done now, the golf course will turn into a park”.
There are around “900 members in the club and the monthly amount paid by each is Rs 600 and this is besides the annual fee that avid golfers pay”, pointed out a few golfers, adding that the club has enough money but not the intention to revive the glory of the golf course.
When contacted, the director of the golf club, Col Jagdish Singh, said he would not speak before February 15-16 as some of his colleagues were not in the city. Sunday Shillong tried to contact him last week too but he was “busy” and an official requested to contact him a week after.
While the management remains elusive, the worry about the course persists, especially before the National Games. The greens are not well-maintained and a large part of the course is covered with dry grass. “It is not just in winter but the course remains like this throughout the year. At least the greens regenerate during monsoon,” said some experts.
Smith informed that the government is planning intensively for the upkeep of the course. He also mentioned that there are talks about diverting the traffic during the Games.
“There is a plan for traffic diversion. Without this, there will be problem during the tournaments. But that is still in the planning stage and nothing has been finalised so far,” said Sports Minister Banteidor Lyngdoh.
On the sanctioned fund for maintenance of the course, Lyngdoh said it has not been decided yet.
There is no clarity on how the Shillong Club or the government plans to restore the golf course, the Gleneagles of the East, and revive it to its past glory. Meanwhile, the course wallows in neglect. “There is a crying need for the new generation and each and every stakeholder to come together and save the place. The golf course is a gem that Meghalaya has,” said Fearless Warjri, an old-time golfer.
~ Nabamita Mitra
Photos by ST