1877  The Beginning

WHOEVER HEARD of a golf course in the middle of a racecourse! Well, Madras (Now the Chennai), that pioneer, has one, almost by municipal limits and the end of this journey down the road to the Mount.

Governor Thomas Pitt, early in the 18th Century, created a recreation area on The Island, but while a bowling green and avenues for walks are mentioned, no other sporting activity is recorded here till 1775 when there was a race meet referred to. A Daniells' painting in 1792 is the next reference point in the history of the Island; it shows a cricket match in progress and is accompanied by the artist's description of the setting. The next sporting activity recorded here is of a A.F. Brown and A.N.Other (who is only described as a keen golfer) attempting to play golf on The Island around 1870 and finding the ground most unsuitable for the game. However, by 1877 there appears to have been considerable improvement to the ground made, a 7-hole course laid and golf got formally started in the Presidency with the forming of the Madras Golf Club that year. Col. Ross Thompson was the first Captain.

MGC vs BGC Oldest & Longest running Inter Club Tournament in the world

In July the next year, the MGC met the year older Bangalore Golf Club in a four-a-side tournament and emerged victorious. A contest that has continued ever since, this is said to be one of the oldest inter-club competitions in the world.

In 1885, the Government appears to have requested the MGC to shift and permitted it use of land in the middle of the Guindy expanse given to the racing fraternity as far back as the Daniells' era, to judge by the painting they did of the Assembly Rooms-on the Race Ground near Madras. Arrangements, it would appear, did not get regularised here till 1904, but during this period the game is reported to have been played in a unique fashion: 7 holes on The Island, a race to Guindy on horseback to play 4 holes there and a race back to The Island for the final 7 holes!

1887 Madras Golf Club Merges with Madras Gymkhana Club

It was also while the Guindy golf course was being laid that the Madras Golf Club decided to merge with the Madras Gymkhana Club. This merger was finalised in 1887 and, in 1904, with the new links ready, J. Kerr Greig became the first Captain of the Madras Gymkhana's men's golf section. It was to be 1970 before there was to be a Ladies' section, its first captain Mrs. M.F.J. Nevens. Women using the Guindy course had, however, started in the 1930s, but the competitiveness grew only when Padma Devi Rao, Santha Narasimhan, Leela Ratnam and Lakshmi Dogra, the first of the Indian women, took to the game in the early 1960s.

1947 POST Independence

The Indian princely order had been offered membership of the club in the 1930s. But it was only in the first year after Independence that the Madras Gymkhana, following its usage during the War years by Indian officers, opened its doors to a wider Indian membership. The Guindy golf course was a 12-hole one at the time. Over the next decade or so, it grew into a 14-hole one, then to 16 holes and, finally, to the 18 holes it is today. During those years, the course had no `greens'. Brought up on its `browns' members of the Club had difficulty in making a mark in the bigger national competitions. And so, `greens' were much in demand.

1974 - Start of a Green Revolution

It was around 1974-75 that the Club decided to start the greening of the course. And when the Madras Race club in 1977 decided to give the proceeds of one race day - it turned out to be about Rs.5 lakh - the Gymkhana's Golf Annexe got its first `greens', an appropriate celebration of its centenary. Keen national golfers such as G. Mohan Rao and V.S. Dhanasekar were responsible for this transformation which was wrought when they got down Goswami, the Chief Greens Keeper of the Delhi Golf Club, to advise and supervise the initial greening. The Gymkhana Golf Course was the first links in South India to have greens and Mohan Rao was later to advise Bangalore and Coimbatore when they decided to follow suit. The Madras `greens', however, require to be still larger if local players are to improve their match play, the pundits feel.

Gymkhana golf got its first Indian captain in 1963 when D.R.Dogra was elected. The first ladies' captain was Leela Ratnam in 1971. During this period and well into the early 1980s, the club had a fine professional, Atson Wiler, `Mr. Wheeler' to all. Over 30 years, `Mr. Wheeler' taught, coached and advised the best players the club produced, such as Mohan Rao, Dilip Thomas, Nanda Alaganan and Lalitha Balasubramaniam. Wiler, from an Anglo-Indian planting family, laid the foundations for many a Madras golfer being competitive on the national scene. Another successful coach at the Gymkhana has been Col. C.V. Pratap, to whom many of the current crop of promising young golfers, like his son C.V. Yudhvir and Sandeep Syal, owe much. The Gymkhana's Golf Course has come a long way from its early days, even though it often has to play second fiddle to racing on numerous occasions.

Nevertheless, one feature remains and that is the rough which every one of the 600 members and competing golfers dread. The rough here is as rough as it can get. The elephant grass, which is its main feature, is trimmed shorter nowadays, but many an old-timer still jokes about how members on the short side could get lost in it when searching for a ball driven off the fairway. `Golfing shikaris in tiger grass' as one veteran describes the layers and the surroundings, and the wind that can be fierce at times make the course a challenge. But they have also, over the years, contributed to the fun of the game. Note: The Gymkhana's and the Cosmopolitan's are the only two golf courses in the city. In the 1930s there were six: A 9-hole course on what was left of the Esplanade, a similar one the Army had laid on The Island, the Cosmopolitan's in Saidapet, the Adyar Club's 12-hole course off Chamier's Road, the Guindy course and another Army course, the Mount links, where the airport now is.

Author : S MUTHIAH