Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Fire and Fury Might Have to Wait for the Next Lifetime

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Articles, Golf

The Indian Army controls the world’s highest golf course, bringing a surprising set of challenges

LEH, Ladakh, India

I thought it might be the altitude that would get to me, but it turned out to be military bureaucracy.

Since my first visit in 1979 I had wanted to play golf in Ladakh, an isolated corner of northern India that forms part of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau.  I wasn’t particularly interested in golf during that visit 26 years ago, but nevertheless I vividly remembered the sight of black “greens” lying amidst an ochre-colored wasteland.  The sight appealed to my sense of the ridiculous. What was a golf course doing up there in a land of Tibetan monks, yaks and oxygen-deficient atmosphere?

But the altitude – where climbing a flight of stairs felt to me like Hillary’s and Tenzing’s struggle to the summit of Everest, turned out to be a non-factor.  I had under-estimated that classic oxymoron – military intelligence.

During the past 26 years I became a golf junkie, and recently, when I visited India’s capital Delhi on business, I made some calls to see what it would take to play in Ladakh.

“Yes, there is a course,” a well-placed friend, himself a retired officer, advised.  “But it’s military. Closed to the public.”

“I’m not the public. I’m a journalist,” I countered.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

My friend put me in touch with another military friend, a colonel, who had some influence.

While I was still in Delhi I called him and said “I’ll be in Leh tomorrow. “Can I see you?”

The next morning I arrived on the dawn flight to Ladakh’s capital Leh, found out that my cellphone didn’t work, eventually found a phone in my hotel (curiously named The Yak Tail) and called the colonel, whom I hoped would be my savior.

“What? You’re in Leh? I say, bad planning. I’m in Delhi,” he said, once again showing how two people can be separated by a common language. “Not good at all.  I need to get your passport, and get permission, and…”

So I went directly to the course, spoke to the man in charge, and wrote a note to an even more senior officer based locally who apparently had the power to grant me access.

In the meantime I strolled around the course, which lies just a drive and five-iron from a street of shops. 

Next to the first tee, named Sher Shah Suri after the 15th century Moghul “Lion King”, is a signboard reading: “Built 1967 as Trishul Golf Course, renamed Fire and Fury in 1999.  18 holes, 7,231 yards, par 72.”  Nothing about restricted access.

I stood on the elevated tee box, a room-sized construction rising about a meter off the ground.  It was covered with dried mud, and in the center was a pizza-sized patch of scraggly grass, a golf course equivalent of Yasser Arafat’s three-day stubble.  Those few blades were about the only green found anywhere on the course. I later learned that most golfers carry their own little mats with them to use on the tees.

Just next to the tee was the green for the 10th hole, dubbed “10 Downing Street”.  It wasn’t too hard to see that the course was maintained by the army corps of engineers – this particular green was perfectly square, and the bunker next to it was perfectly rectangular.

Actually the green wasn’t green.  It was black.  I studied the substance – motor oil mixed with sand.  A ball rolled more or less true, but slowly. Augusta National it isn’t.

I walked around the course.  In one section several gardeners were planting some 500 willow trees to provide I’m not too sure — a golfing challenge? a touch of green?  a practical horticultural exercise in drip irrigation?

Ladakh is mostly a high altitude desert, and even though the region had a snowy winter, during my early spring visit the golf course appeared lunar and severe – brown and unwelcoming. It’s set in a bowl, about three kilometers long and one kilometer wide, with stunning views of the Khardang Mountains.  I could see the road winding up to the Khardang-la, pass at 5,603 meters the world’s highest motorable road.

Obviously, this is high country, populated by ethnic Tibetans who sometimes appear closer to the secrets of the cosmos than flat-dwellers.

Is Fire and Fury, at 3,445 meters, the world’s highest golf course? 

The Tuctu Golf Club in Peru, high in the Andes at 4,335 meters, once held the record, but it was abandoned over a decade ago and is now, according to one report, an unplayable mass of bush and vegetation.

With Tuctu out of action, Ladakh’s Fire and Fury is certainly the highest 18-hole golf course in the world, at 3,445 meters.  Next comes La Paz Golf Club in Bolivia, at 3,292 meters, which can stake a claim to be the highest grass course in the world. 

By comparison, the highest United States courses are non-contenders in the nosebleed sweepstakes.  Mount Massive, a 9-hole course in Leadville, Colorado, claims to be the highest course in North America at 2,950 meters, but the highest 18-hole course is Copper Creek Golf Club at Copper Mountain, also in Colorado. Its clubhouse, the location where official altitude is determined, is at 2,895 meters but portions of the course climb to nearly 2,956 meters.

I eventually met some high ranking officers at the military barracks in Leh.  Their responses were similar: “Too bad you’re here for such a short time, we’d love to play with you but you have to get an intelligence clearance.”

“But it’s a golf course,” I argued.

“Yes, but it’s also a military training area.”

Ladakh occupies a strategic position – the territory is scrunched between perennial enemies Pakistan (the countries have fought three bitter wars since 1947) and China, (a border war in 1962), making it a geopolitical hotspot.  I saw that the military commanders weren’t going to bend to make a middle-aged American tourist happy.

So I pursued an alternative path and consulted Venerable Nawang Luto, a monk at the nearby Spituk monastery, whom I had befriended in 1979.

He listened to my tale and, with the wisdom of decades of Tibetan meditation behind him, basically said “I can pray for your soul but the army is out of my control.”

Nevertheless, I’m optimistic that if I return to Ladakh I will be granted permission to play Fire and Fury.  I’ve already got my talisman – an electric blue golf cap bearing the Fire and Fury logo.  Not taking any chances, I also acquired a prayer wheel which sends entreaties towards the heavens. So even if I don’t get to play the course in this lifetime I can perhaps take solace in the philosophy of my monk friend Nawang Luto. Existence is skaywa, a cycle, and if things don’t work out in this life there will always be another opportunity in another lifetime to play the gravel course at Fire and Fury. In the meantime I’m breathing deeply and practicing my shots off dirt.